In a remote village in Narok, water scarcity is as old as the community’s culture. But as long as the rural folk have beasts of burden to haul water to their homes, the scarcity isn’t as tragic.
At dawn, women and children would guide their donkeys to the nearest watering hole and drive them back home comfortably as the animals lugged the water cans.
Then, about two years ago, donkey theft crept in and became rampant, robbing the village of its convenient means of transporting water and other goods. And now, women and children must carry water by themselves as they trek miles under the scorching sun to deliver the commodity home.
“It is very tiring and we can only afford to carry one jerry can at a time, so we have to make several trips,” said Nancy Sintoyia, a resident of Nkareta village.
Like in Narok, the theft has spread widely across several parts of the country particularly in remote areas, which naturally had high numbers of the animal. Bomet, Nakuru, Baringo, Machakos, Kirinyaga, Embu and Kitui have been reported as the worst-hit counties.
It is estimated that the number of donkeys in the country has dropped by half since 2009 to 900,000.
Animal rights activists attribute the decline to the burgeoning market for donkey hides in China. From Kenya, the donkey pelts travel thousands of kilometres to China. Many of them end up in an eastern town called Dong’e, where most of the world’s ejiao — a traditional medicine made from gelatin extracted from boiled donkey hides — is made.
Ejiao was in the past prescribed primarily to supplement lost blood but, today, it is sought for a myriad uses, ranging from delaying ageing and increasing libido to treating side effects of chemotherapy and preventing infertility, miscarriage and menstrual irregularity.
And the demand for ejiao has been rising recently — fetching around $400 (Sh40,000) per pound (454 grammes), up from $9 (Sh900) per pound.
Having wiped out their donkeys, Chinese traders are turning to Africa in recent years to meet the demand for donkey skin, a move that has increased theft and cross-border smuggling of the animals in Kenya.
In Kenya, three Chinese-owned companies have so far opened donkey slaughter houses in the country: The Zilzha Ltd Slaughterhouse in Nakwaalele, Turkana, Goldox Donkey slaughterhouse in Mogotio, Baringo and Star Brilliant Abattoir in Naivasha, Nakuru.
Mr Fred Ochieng, regional chief executive of Brooke — an international animal welfare charity dedicated to improving the lives of working horses, donkeys and mules — reckons that the impact of donkey theft and slaughter is proving even greater than initially thought.
Brooke also found out in a survey that 4 in every 10 donkey farmers had lost donkeys in the last six-months while 8 in 10 farmers reportedly knew someone in the community that involuntarily lost donkeys in the six months preceding the study.
“Alarming reports have been coming in from Kenya, Ethiopia and South Africa, and it’s clear that it is affecting the people who rely on donkeys to support their livelihoods,” says Mr Ochieng.
He says that donkeys remain crucial to rural economies, where they are used to transport food, water, firewood and farm produce. Moreover, donkey owners earned Sh213,979 on average, annually.