The illegal sale of donkey skins is thriving in online marketplaces, with traders openly flouting local laws, and social media multinationals such as Facebook doing little to prevent the illegal trade, according to a new investigation.
Traders on Facebook are offering large quantities of donkey skins on the site, the report said, including one trader in Kenya, where the trade is effectively banned, who listed 2,000 for immediate sale. The report found large numbers of sellers in countries that have bans on the donkey skin trade, including Kenya, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Senegal and Ghana.
In its report, the Donkey Sanctuary charity said traders promoted the sale of donkey skins on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Instagram. It said the algorithms used by social media companies made it easy for buyers to find sellers.
An estimated 4.8 million donkeys are killed for trade every year, according to the report, a demand partly sustained by raids on farmers who depend on the animals for their livelihoods.
The trafficking feeds a rising demand for ejiao, a traditional Chinese remedy that uses donkey skins to produce a form of gelatine. Despite only 20 countries having deals to legally trade donkey skins with China, skins arrive there from more than 50 countries, says the charity.
The report, published on Sunday, is the first to reveal the scale of the trade, which is entangled with organized crime syndicates, international drug trafficking and the illegal trade in endangered animals and animal parts.
Investigators for the charity found 382 traders who sold donkey skins and other trafficked wildlife on e-commerce sites, some of whom also sold drugs, human hair and fake passports.
The report said some traders also operated on the dark web, and many used established drug-trafficking networks to transport the hides. In cases where exporting donkey skins was legal, the report found the goods were bundled with other illegal wildlife items, or illegal drugs.
It also said websites were failing to clamp down on the illegal trade, despite it being clear from listings that sellers were aware of the laws, with many promising to package the hides carefully to avoid detection. Marianne Steele, the charity’s acting CEO, said: “By cracking down on the sale of donkey skins on their platforms, e-commerce and social media [firms] will not only prevent considerable cruelty, but also help eliminate the other criminal activity that is taking place alongside it. ”
In an accompanying study on the link between the donkey trade and global wildlife trafficking, the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School and Wildlife Conservation Research Unit found 15,000 items for sale on seven websites, alongside postings offering 13 endangered species.
“Our work brings together concerns about wildlife conservation, animal welfare and the wellbeing of some of the world’s poorest communities, all around the unexpected focal point of donkeys,” said Dr Ewan Macdonald, postdoctoral research fellow at Saïd Business School.
Macdonald said 20% of traders also sold other trafficked wildlife products, including pangolin scales and elephant ivory.
Last month, campaign group Avaaz said it had documented a thriving marketplace for wildlife trafficking on Facebook, finding tiger cubs, leopards, ocelots, African gray parrots and the pygmy marmoset, the world’s smallest monkey.
In response to the Avaaz report, Facebook’s parent company, Meta, questioned the validity of the study’s methodology and sample size, and said the results did not reflect the work they had done to combat wildlife trafficking, including removing content and launching strategies to discourage people. from participating in the trade. “This is an adversarial space though, and the people behind this awful activity are persistent and constantly evolving their tactics to try and evade these efforts,” said a spokesperson.
Meta did not respond to the claims made in the Donkey Sanctuary report about the use of its platform for the sale of donkey skins in countries where it is illegal.