While other African countries are banning the export of donkey skins, Kenya is doing a brisk trade in the commodity so sought after in China.
Gelatin from the skins is used in traditional Chinese medicine ejiao. So far, five countries in the world, four of them in Africa, have barred sales of donkey products out of concern that demand from Asia will quickly outstrip local supply.
Kenya, home to more than 1.8 million donkeys, vital as beasts of burden, doesn’t appear to be worried about that.
Last year officials approved a $3 million donkey abattoir run by two Chinese entrepreneurs in Baringo county, northwest of Nairobi.
It was the country’s second donkey slaughterhouse, after another built in Naivasha the year before. Today, it processes about 600 donkeys a day, from suppliers in Kenya as well as Tanzania.
Over the last two years, a global trade in donkey skins has emerged as ejiao has become popular among middle-class Chinese who prize it as an anti-aging agent, an aphrodisiac, a cure for insomnia or poor circulation, among other health benefits.
At least 1.8 million donkey hides are traded a year, according to a report last month from the Donkey Sanctuary, a British nonprofit.
China’s own donkey population has more than halved since the 1990s, which has increased global demand—estimated at 4 million skins a year, according to the group.
Other African countries are getting into the hide business—ejiao can sell for up to $360 per kg in China.
Ethiopia, with the continent’s largest donkey population of 7.4 million, has built two large-scale, Chinese-owned slaughterhouses.
Cases of illegal “bush slaughter,” where the animals are usually stolen, have been reported in Tanzania, Egypt, and South Africa and beyond.
Gelatin produced from donkey hide is a key ingredient of one of China's favorite traditional remedies, known as ejiao, which is used to treat a range of ailments from colds to insomnia.
But as the rising power shifts towards advanced industry and away from traditional agriculture, donkeys are in decline. State statistics show the population has fallen from 11 million to six million over the last 20 years.
China is now increasingly looking to Africa to boost its stocks, and imports donkeys from countries across the continent. But flourishing trade has hit several roadblocks.
The donkey trade in Africa threatens to raise prices of an animal that is crucial to the survival of many families, especially in rural areas.
In Burkina Faso, one of two countries to ban exports last year, the cost of a donkey went up to £108 from £60 between 2014 and 2016, according to the Donkey Sanctuary.
It’s estimated that one donkey can support a family of six, according to Brooke, an equine welfare charity that spoke out last year against the growing abuse and theft of donkeys for export to China.
Niger recently became the latest African state to ban exports of donkeys, following a surge in sales to China.
Government officials reported that 80,000 animals had been sold in the first 9 months of 2016, compared with 27,000 in 2015, and warned that the donkey population would be "decimated" on current trends.
In August, Burkina Faso took the same step, after 45,000 donkeys were slaughtered in six months from a total population of 1.4 million.
In both cases, the value of donkeys soared and the fledgling industry delivered a valuable stream of foreign currency. But growth came at a cost.
In Kenya, where drought in several areas is expected to worsen, the situation is even more precarious for donkeys.
Working donkeys are vital to people’s livelihoods here—they carry water and food for families, fuel and building materials.
They help people earn the money they use to put food on the table and children in school, said Dil Peeling, head of animal welfare and sustainability at Brooke.
Beyond the severe damage to donkey populations, the new industry caused environmental and economic problems.
The spread of abattoirs generated a backlash. In the Burkinabe village of Balole, local farmers reportedly attacked and closed a slaughterhouse in protest at blood and offal leaking into their water supplies.
The donkey boom also attracted farmers from other livestock trades, which suffered as a result, and were also affected by inflation.
"In Niger and Burkina Faso the rising value of donkey hide and meat created inflationary impact in other sectors," says Dr. Emmanuel Igbinoba. "The price of other animals rose because of the donkey, not because there was demand for this animal, which caused imbalance in the economy."
The exporting countries suffered from a lack of regulation, according to Eric Olander, co-founder of the China Africa Project and host of the China in Africa podcast.
Just as with other livestock, raw materials and other natural resources, the scale of the demand from China is often so large that it can rapidly overwhelm the supply of any single resource, he says.
Governments that trade with China have an obligation to their people to regulate trade so it does not deplete any single resource to the point where it imposes burdens on their own people.
China's huge appetite for donkeys does create opportunities that exporters can benefit from with careful planning, says Igbinoba.
There is steady demand for the gelatin, he says. If African countries can regulate well, with high standard abattoirs, and train people how to rear these animals, the donkey can be an important source of income.
Burkina has announced plans to regulate donkey sales, but will face competition from continental rivals willing to pick up the trade.
Major economies such as Kenya and South Africa are scaling up their facilities to meet Chinese demand, and a black market is also flourishing across the continent.
Chinese demand is expected to increase with a growing consumer class willing to spend on luxury goods such as ejiao.
The challenge for suppliers is to ensure the trade is a blessing rather than a curse.