A bid by a local investor to build Zimbabwe’s first donkey abattoir has collapsed after public disapproval of the investment, and the government’s resultant reluctance to license the project.

Battlefront Investments, a Zimbabwean company, had already received a development license from the local rural district council and proceeded to invest $150 000 (nearly R1,8 million) in building the facility in Douglasdale, an agro-residential suburb 20km south of Bulawayo, the country’s largest city.

Gareth Lumsden, managing director of Battlefront Investments, said they expected to start operations in November 2017, slaughtering 70 donkeys daily. They sought to export the meat and skin to China, where both products are in demand and fetch high prices. For months, Lumsden and his workers traversed the countryside buying donkeys and transporting them to his feedlot a short distance from the abattoir.

Public rejection of the project

His investment, however, appears to have gone up in smoke after the public and animal rights activists rose up against his project.

“We don’t eat donkeys in Zimbabwe,” said Rachel Sunduzani of Douglasdale, where the abattoir is located. “In our culture that animal is detested. It is good as draught power, nothing more. What guarantee is there that, if the abattoir is licensed and actually starts operating, donkey meat will not end up in butcheries as beef or something?

“He [Lumsden] already has an abattoir for other animals, and my question is how much can we trust him? A donkey is very cheap to buy, $100 (R1 200) or less, compared to a cow at around $400 (R4 800). Will he not be tempted to make a quick buck by killing the donkeys and selling their meat as beef?”

The population of donkeys in Zimbabwe is largely unknown, as the animals are seen as unimportant and not worth counting. Lumsden estimates that there are roughly 300 000 donkeys, most of them in south-western Zimbabwe, but five animal rights organisations put the population at 150 000 animals.

Most people in Zimbabwe and large parts of Africa do not eat donkey meat. There is thus no structured market for the animal in most countries on the continent. A few countries, however, have businesses that slaughter donkeys for the Chinese market. Kenya is one of them, although countries such as Tanzania, Senegal, Mali, Botswana, Niger, Gambia and Burkina Faso stopped the trade in donkeys recently to prevent depletion of the animals.

Sickly and abused donkeys

Battlefront Investments have been buying donkeys from across Zimbabwe – many of which looked sickly and abused – and transported them to Lumsden’s plot in Manningdale, an agro-residential suburb in Bulawayo, close to the abattoir in Douglasdale.

A visit to the feedlot in early December 2017 showed that it has nearly 170 donkeys.

A worker who refused to be named said the project is now stranded. “These are some of the donkeys we have bought for the project, but you people shot it down,” he said. “As a result, authorities are refusing to give us a licence to start operations. I don’t know what we are going to do, especially with the animals. We can find alternative use for the infrastructure that had been built (the abattoir) if they continue refusing to licence the project, but our options are limited regarding the donkeys.”

He said 20 of the animals have died since they were moved into the feedlot sometime in August. “Some are dying, but not because we are mistreating them. It is because our people out there don’t treat their donkeys well. They abuse them.

“The target of Battlefront Investments is to buy the old donkeys and those that are unwell. We bought some that have broken legs. It is unfortunate that some of the injuries are serious. It is those animals that are dying here, and we are being accused of causing their deaths. No, that is not true. What we want is to encourage our people to change their attitudes towards their donkeys and see value in them.”

Poor living conditions

Officials from the Veterinarians for Animal Welfare Zimbabwe and Zimbabwe National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ZNSPCA) visited the feedlot in October 2017. They condemned the conditions

the donkeys must endure after finding one of them dead and five with broken legs.

“I don’t believe we should have a donkey abattoir,” ZNSPCA spokesperson Beryl Oosthuizen told journalists during the visit. “It’s not in the culture of the people of Zimbabwe, even if the promoters of the project are saying they will export the meat and skins.

“I must also say that what I see here, in terms of the living conditions of animals in this feedlot, is worse than disgusting. The animals are always fighting, because they have mixed the stallions and females in one place, which is not ideal.”

Donkeys housed in the Battlefront Investment feedlot.

Monitoring by parliament needed

The debate over the abattoir reached Parliament.

Reneth Mano, an economist at the Livestock and Meat Advisory Council, told legislators at a 2018 national budget consultative meeting late last year that, if licensed, the abattoir might provoke a wave of theft of the animals, as more people would see greater monetary value in them. This, he said, would leave donkey owners poorer, not richer.

“Our fear is that this might promote rustling of donkeys, which will be stolen for slaughter. Parliament must monitor the situation and put the Ministry of Agriculture to task to ensure that this situation does not end up in crime,” he said.

High Chinese demand

Reports say there is high demand for donkey meat and skin in China. Since time immemorial, the Chinese have used donkey skin to make gelatine for a product called ‘ejiao’. The product, says international charity The Donkey Sanctuary, is “a hard gel which can be dissolved in hot water or alcohol to be used in food or drink, or it is used in beauty products such as face creams. Ejiao is believed to improve blood circulation, so it is used as a blood tonic by people with anaemia, low blood cell counts or reproductive problems.”

Yet Zimbabwean conservationists and animal rights activists have spoken out against Lumsden’s initiative. The Veterinarians for Animal Welfare Zimbabwe, the Zimbabwe National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Lupane Development Trust and Aware Trust Zimbabwe issued a joint statement highlighting possible socio-economic, animal welfare and environmental consequences arising from the project.

“The proposed abattoir in Matabeleland has the ability to process 70 animals per day,” said the four organisations in the joint statement. “If supply met demand, using 300 working days per year, the population of donkeys could be decreased by 21 000 per year.

“Donkeys are not suited as intensive production animals, since they have long gestation periods, high foal mortality and slow foal development rates. Housed in inhabitable groups, donkeys suffer from a stress-induced condition called hyper-lipemia, which can kill them. There is currently no ethically acceptable method to intensively farm with donkeys, and the demand for the skin trade far exceeds the rate at which they can be produced.”

Recommendations made

They made five recommendations they think should be addressed before licensing of Battlefront Investment’s project can be considered. An immediate and accurate census of donkeys needs to be carried out, donkey owners must be appraised on the possible long-term impact of the investment, and a life monetary value of donkeys should be determined. Additionally, the number of donkeys to be culled sustainably should be assessed, and specific veterinary regulations regarding their welfare need to be promulgated. – Ian Nkala