“Today, a donkey is born and nobody wants it,” lamented Eribaldo Nobre, 53, whose family used donkeys to lug fresh water home when he was a child. “Progress made this animal worthless.”
Enter China, where soaring demand for protein has put donkey meat on the menu. But Chinese consumers hanker after more than just the meat. They also have a growing craving for ejiao, a gelatinous substance made from boiled donkey hides, which is said to boost health, reverse aging and serve as an aphrodisiac.
Brazil, with 1 million donkeys and world-class slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants, is now looking to cash in. The plans to do so have touched off an emotional struggle between those who see donkeys as animals to exploit, even to consume, and those who want to protect what they see as a steadfast emblem of Brazilian rural life.
The front line of that fight lies here in the northeast, where 90% of Brazil’s donkeys can be found meandering among small farming communities.
“Donkeys are a symbol of Brazil’s northeast,” said Geuza Leitão, president of an animal-rights group in Ceará state north of here and author of “Your Excellency, The Donkey,” a book eulogizing the humble burro. “We want them to leave the donkey alone.”
A slaughterhouse focusing on donkey-derived exports to China is being built here just outside of Apodi, a town of 36,000 where donkeys often impede the very cars and motorcycles that made them obsolete. It will be the second donkey abattoir designed with the Chinese market in mind, after a facility in Bahia started small-scale donkey slaughtering last year in a pilot program that Brazilian and Chinese officials hope will soon expand.
“We want to open the door to this market as soon as possible,” said Luis Rangel, an official at Brazil’s Agriculture Ministry who oversees safety standards and has been working with Chinese officials to further exports. “We’re looking for new agricultural products, because we’re already champions in the traditional ones,” he added, referring to Brazil’s huge cattle industry.
Brazil hasn’t yet issued the sanitary licenses necessary to enable regular shipments of donkey products to China, nor has China approved the import of products from the two donkey slaughterhouses. But both sides are so confident that shipments of donkey products to China will begin later this year that they are already hatching joint plans to go beyond the current feral or semi-feral population and genetically improve donkeys, which have long gestation periods and don’t lend themselves to large-scale production like cattle.
The Chinese government and Dong-E-E-Jiao Co., one of the country´s largest ejiao producers, didn’t respond to requests for comment.
In some parts of the world, China’s appetite for donkey meat and hides is viewed with revulsion. Several African countries that had been big providers of donkeys have recently prohibited donkey sales. According to a report by the Donkey Sanctuary, a British animal-rights group, those animals were often stolen before their skins were shipped to China.
The demand for ejiao has caused China’s own donkey population, once the world’s largest, to fall by nearly half to 6 million animals since 1990. More than 1.8 million donkey skins are traded annually, according to the Donkey Sanctuary, which estimates a market for some 10 million hides a year.
Some here see northeastern Brazil filling the void, but there is ample resistance to the notion in a place where people have a special place in their hearts for the burro. Singers have dedicated ballads to them in this region, where donkeys, not dogs, are considered man’s best friend.
José Sena de Lima, who is 96, still keeps three donkeys on the ranch where he lives near Apodi. When the family house was built in the 1930s, he said, his father had the help of two donkeys and a mule.
“If you didn’t own a donkey, you would often have to carry stuff on your own back,” said Mr. de Lima, who still talks about the animals with gratitude.
Adailton Torres Filho, 53, remembered how his baby sister, suffering from a nutritional deficiency, got stronger when their parents fed her donkey milk.
But there are also cautionary tales about the out-of-control population. Geneclayton de Gois Almeida, 40, a veterinarian, said his father was killed 20 years ago when his car hit a donkey lying on the road after having been hit by another vehicle. “In the northeast, we all know someone who was involved in a car accident somehow related to a donkey,” he said.