SAO PAULO – The strong sun was splitting the earth when Lieutenant Benjamin Silva arrived at Fazenda Boa Esperança, in Itatim, in the caatinga region of Bahia, in the early afternoon of a Friday, 9 July. The thermometers read 40 degrees and at least 200 donkeys roamed the terrain. Some of them tried to stay in the shade of a tree with completely dry branches. There was no pasture, no water. Weak, malnourished and without food, the animals waited for the day of slaughter. Others had already died and were eaten by vultures. Not even in the worst image of drought in the Northeast was the donkey, a partner of the backwoodsman on the farm, suffering in such a situation.
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— The perversity is too great — says Lieutenant Benjamin, commander of the PM in Itatim.
The man who took care of the place was indicted for maltreatment and informed that the animals would go to a slaughterhouse in the municipality of Amargosa, one of three located in Bahia with authorization to slaughter donkeys for export. The owner of the order was identified only as “Wen”.
Ten years ago, with the arrival of motorcycles in the northeastern hinterland, many donkeys were abandoned by their owners and started to roam on roads, causing accidents. In Ceará, Detran even set up a farm to house them. In 2015, the Minister of Agriculture, Kátia Abreu, received a request from a Chinese investor: he wanted to import around 1 million donkeys a year.
There is no news of large investment in creation, but export has become a reality.
The donkey’s main product is the skin. Boiled, it gives rise to ejiao, a type of gelatin used as a popular medicine by the Chinese, which promises health and vitality, as an anti-anemia, anti-fatigue and antioxidant tonic. A study by the Federal University of Alagoas (Ufal) shows that more than 1,800 Chinese formulas use such gelatin.
Demand from the Chinese market is estimated at between 5 to 10 million skins per year. Each animal yields 1.2 kilograms of gelatin, sold for around US$800 and US$1,000 per kilogram.
Worldwide, the herd of donkeys was estimated at 44 million in 2018. In Brazil, at 400,000. Two weeks ago, a special edition of the “Brazilian Journal of Veterinary Research and Animal Science” brought an alert from researchers at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and Animal Science at the University of São Paulo (FMVZ-USP): the species is under threat in the country.
— If the slaughter does not stop, we will see the extinction of donkeys in Brazil — says Professor Adroaldo Zanella, a specialist in animal welfare and responsible for the publication.
According to data from the FMVZ-USP, the slaughter of donkeys increased by more than 8,000% between 2015 and 2019, a period in which 91,645 animals were killed. Between 2010 and 2014, there were just over 1,000 slaughters in the country. In 2018, it had already reached 62,622.
At the height of the slaughters, the discovery of about 800 animals in extreme suffering in the municipality of Euclides da Cunha (BA), similar to that seen in Itatim, led the National Forum for Animal Protection and Defense to file a public civil action in court. Federal, which ordered the suspension of slaughter in December 2018. Of the animals seized, only 140 survived and live today on the farm provided by a professor at the Federal University of Bahia, under the protection of the Forum.
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In October 2019, the then judge of the Federal Court of the 1st Region and now Minister of the Federal Supreme Court (STF) Kassio Nunes Marques authorized the resumption of slaughter, under the argument that slaughterhouses generate about 150 direct and 270 indirect jobs in Bahia. The request for release was made by the Attorney General of the Union (AGU), according to which the country had 900,000 donkeys.
Data from the IBGE Agricultural Census show that Brazil had 376,874 donkeys in 2017, the last number available. Another 615,498 were mules (crossing a donkey and mare), which cannot reproduce.
With the release, the Ministry of Agriculture registers 28,936 slaughters in Bahia between February and July since this year. There is no 2020 data.
Zanella claims that the extinction of donkeys can occur because, unlike animals such as oxen or pigs, there are no donkey breeders in Brazil.
The animals are picked up throughout the Northeast and taken to Bahia. Vania Nunes, technical director of the National Forum for Animal Protection and Defense, recalls that the donkey’s gestation is 13 months and she has one calf at a time.
— What production line would we have to have to supply the gigantic Chinese market? – question.
According to Silva, the donkeys are bought for around R$50 to R$100. They are transported for days in carts, without water or food. When they fall onto trucks, they are left on the roads.
It is not possible to know if the destination is legal or illegal slaughterhouses. The delegate from Itatim, Luiz Osório Nobre, stated that he is waiting for the boy indicted on the farm to present some document to find out if he could actually hire the animals on behalf of the Chinese, appointed as a partner in a slaughterhouse in Amargosa. Nobody expects signed paper.
The day after the police act, all the donkeys disappeared.
Zanella says that, as there is no control over the origin of the animals, it is not difficult for them to become the target of all sorts of illegalities, ranging from theft to clandestine transport between the states. There is a risk of zoonoses, such as glanders, which can be fatal to humans. Among the animals rescued in 2018, more than a dozen had glanders and were sacrificed.
Prosecutor Adriano Marques, who works in Itatim, claims that lawsuits are not enough to contain the scheme involving donkeys.
“We need an X-ray to see who is funding the activity. The problem starts with raising donkeys, which does not exist, and goes from transport to slaughter. Public policies for the control and preservation of the species are needed — says Marques.
While the prison term for mistreatment of dogs and cats lasts for five years, for other animals it varies from 3 months to one year, as a crime with a small offensive potential.
Zootechnician Chiara Albano de Araújo Oliveira, from the Regional Council of Veterinary Medicine of Bahia, says that animals are seen by the Chinese as a commodity. A technical note from the Council informs that the market for donkey skins has caused gigantic drops in the herd of several countries, mainly in Africa. Countries like Ghana, Ethiopia, Sudan and Nigeria have banned this type of trade.
On August 11, the Public Ministry of Bahia created a working group for an articulated and strategic confrontation of the fate of donkeys — investigation of abuse, violations of biosafety norms and risks to the genetic and cultural heritage that the donkey represents in the Northeast.
Zanella warns that Brazil is also at risk of throwing away an important genetic heritage.
— The donkey holds genetic answers on how to survive in the caatinga, in a dry and inhospitable climate, something valuable in times of climate change — he says.
At the end of 2020, the Agricultural Defense Agency (Adab) established norms for slaughtering donkeys, such as a ban on slaughtering animals weighing less than 90 kilos and limiting the number of females to 40%. Females in the final third of gestation cannot be killed either. Sought, however, Adab said it cannot inspect slaughterhouses that slaughter donkeys, which are subject to inspection by the Federal Inspection Service (SIF).
The Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Supply said, in a note, that the ministry is responsible for the health inspection of the slaughterhouse. “We do not have, within our competences, control over the number of existing or bred animals, nor over the risks of extinction”. The Ministry informed that animals arriving at the slaughterhouse must have an Animal Transit Guide (GTA), issued by state governments and that a federal fiscal auditor visually checks the transport and health conditions of the animals before slaughter.