The history of donkeys and their value to rural livelihoods
Although millions of years ago donkeys and horses had the same ancestors they have evolved to be very different species and understanding those differences are of vital importance to the care and welfare of donkeys. There are two distinct species of wild donkey; the Asiatic branch of the species came from an area stretching from the Red Sea to Northern India and Tibet where the ass had to adapt to different climate, terrain and altitude.
Consequently there is more than one type of Asiatic wild ass. The African branch of the species was found in North Africa between the Mediterranean coast and the Sahara Desert to the south of the Red Sea. There were two separate species of the African ass: the Nubian wild ass and the Somali wild ass. Our modern domesticated donkeys are all descended from these African wild asses ancestors.
Donkeys were first domesticated around 6,000 years ago in North Africa and Egypt for meat and milk. Around 2,000 years ago donkeys were among the draught animals used to carry silk from the Pacific Ocean to the Mediterranean along the Silk Road in return for trade goods.
- Colt: A colt is a young male donkey which is less than four years of age.
- Filly: A filly is a young female donkey which is less than four years of age.
- Foal: A foal is a baby male or female donkey up to one year old.
- Gelding: A castrated male donkey.
- Mare: A female donkey.
- Rig: A rig is an entire male donkey with no signs of external testicles.
- Stallion: A stallion is a male donkey that has not been gelded (castrated).
- Yearling: A yearling is a young male or female donkey between one and two years of age.
- Donkey terms
- Asino: An asino is the Italian word for "donkey".
- Ass: An ass is either a male or female donkey.
- Burro: A burro is the Spanish word for "donkey".
- Hinny: A hinny is the result of breeding between a female donkey and a male horse.
- Jack: A jack is a term for a male donkey.
- Jenny: A jenny (or jennet) is a term for a female donkey.
- Moke: A moke is a British term for a donkey.
- Molly: A molly is a term for a female mule.
Mule: A mule is the result of breeding between a male donkey and a female horse.
Donkey welfare in Africa strengthens livelihoods
Donkeys have been a cornerstone in human existence and they still prop up entire communities today, ferrying water, food and crops. They are highly intelligent creatures, sociable and calm, capable of independent thinking and decision making. They are strong and won’t do something they consider unsafe, which makes them a great, trusted companion. Donkeys are, quite simply, amazing.
There are an estimated 44 million donkeys worldwide and sadly so many are subjected to neglect and abuse, overworked and left in agony to die. This happens due to a lack of education, a lack of understanding of what good care looks like and the hardships of day to day life facing families and communities across the world. Many drive their donkeys into the grave simply out of a need to survive, to ensure their children and families are fed and sheltered. And when those families can no longer depend on their donkeys, more often than not its women, children and particularly girls who feel the impact most. Everyone’s lives are destroyed.
More recently, the world has seen the horrific impact of the illegal and unsustainable donkey skin trade. Donkeys across the world are being stolen from families that rely on them, slaughtered and skinned. All because the gelatine in their hide is a key ingredient in a traditional Chinese medicine called ejiao. With a growing middle class, demand for ejiao has sky rocketed and now its big business.
In rural areas across Africa, donkeys are often used in farming and as transportation: they pulls ploughs and carts, deliver goods to market, and collect water from wells. In urban areas, they are mainly used in construction, transport of people and goods, and refuse collection. By enabling their owners to participate in work, they boost economic capacity in a region. So much so that in Ethiopia there is a saying: ‘If you don’t have a donkey, then you are a donkey.’
Compassion for donkeys means access to water
Millions of people across the world spend several hours every day collecting the precious resource of safe, clean water. Livestock production is also dependent on ready access to water. The simple act of donkeys carrying water reduces time required accessing it.
Strong donkeys build resilience
The extra income generated through working animals also allows people to save money, reinvest in growth and fund access to education. Donkeys’ ability to transport goods increases potential for wider access to quality nutrition in the community through local food markets. Donkeys are often the most valuable asset people own and the largest expense if they need to be replaced. Protection of animals is therefore a key consideration within disaster preparedness and resilience.
Healthy donkeys mean more productive farming
As well as working donkeys increasing productivity by reducing the time and labour in the field or on farm transportation, they enable farmers to go ‘the missing mile’ to market, often in otherwise inaccessible areas. This ensures farmers can turn their crops to cash, while allowing the community to access more diverse foods.
Healthy donkeys empower women
Evidence shows women in Africa often rely on working animals to do tasks they would otherwise have to perform themselves, from collecting water and tilling land to transporting goods. By enabling women to be economically active, they also increase their community status. This economic capability can prevent the worst forms of destitution for lone women, whether working in rural or urban settings.
Caring for donkeys enables education
Donkeys provide the additional income to enable access to education for children. By carrying out labour otherwise done by people, they also help parents give children the care and attention they need at home.