'It's like killing a dog': the controversial slaughter of donkeys in the Northeast to produce medicine in China

The population of Amargosa, a city in the center-south of Bahia, suffers from a dilemma involving the donkey, the donkey, a traditional species in Brazil and a historical symbol of the daily struggle of the sertanejo. The municipality, 150 km from Salvador, became dependent on a market that it grows every year, even under the accusation of putting the animal’s existence at risk.

Frinordeste is located in the city, today the main slaughterhouse for donkeys in the country, whose industrial plant belongs to JBS, but was leased by two Chinese citizens and one Brazilian. In it, about 1,200 animals are slaughtered every week for later export to China, according to officials interviewed on condition of anonymity.

They are killed with a compressed air shot between the eyes. Afterwards, the leather is removed, packed in boxes and taken to China, where it is transformed into a gelatin that is used to produce ejiao, a very popular medicinal product and profitable Traditional Chinese Medicine. The meat is normally separated and exported to Vietnam.

There is no scientific proof that ejiao works, but it does not work. Asian country, it is used to treat various health problems, such as irregular menstruation, anemia, insomnia and even sexual impotence. It is consumed in a variety of ways, such as teas and cakes. On YouTube, there are videos of popular Chinese TV shows teaching recipes with ejiao and promising the viewer a “healthier life.”

The product is estimated to move billions of dollars a year. A piece of leather, for example, can be sold in China for up to U$ 4 thousand (about R$ 20, 6 thousand) —a box of

ejiao costs R$ 750. In Brazil, trade values ​​are much lower — donkeys are traded for R$ 20 in the hinterland, and then passed on to the Chinese.

The high demand and profitability made Chinese businessmen look to Brazil, a country with a abundant population of donkeys —in 2010, there was 1976 thousand of them, mostly in the Northeast, according to IBGE. Today, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Supply (Map), there are around 150 thousand. Between 2010 and 2010, Brazil has slaughtered a thousand donkeys—already between 2015 and 2019, were 90, 6 thousand.

But this number is higher today. Only in Amargosa, there are 4.8 thousand animals per month —57, 6 thousand per year. There are two other slaughterhouses with permission for the activity in the cities of Simões Filho and Itapetinga, also in Bahia.

In recent months, the BBC News Brasil report has focused on the trade and slaughter of donkeys and how this market has been affecting part of the Northeast. Although it has been recently permitted, the exportation for the production of ejiao has been identified by specialists, authorities and advocates of the animal cause as an extractive market.

To manufacture the product, animals are removed from the environment in large volumes, without a production chain that renews the herd, as occurs with cattle. In other words, they are slaughtered at a speed greater than their reproduction capacity, which sparked an alert that the donkey population could be eliminated in the coming years in the Northeast.

Moreover , the sector grew in line with the increase in hunger and poverty in a region that has historically been plagued by these problems. But it also grew amid complaints of abuse, contamination of animals by glanders, a deadly disease, work analogous to slavery and abandonment of donkeys to death by starvation.

Economic dependency

The city of Amargosa, from 30 thousand inhabitants and known for its busy São João festival, it is the final stop of the northeastern donkey before it is slaughtered and exported to become medicine in China. It is located in a region known as Vale do Jiquiriçá, one of the most beautiful places in Brazil, with rock formations 40 meters of height spread across the caatinga scenery.

Since 2015, the The municipality is the place where the most donkeys are slaughtered in the country.

According to the mayor, Júlio Pinheiro (PT), the sector is the third largest employer in Amargosa, behind only the city hall and a shoe factory. For him, the recent market is fundamental for the city’s economy, generating jobs, income and taxes.

“The slaughterhouse has helped in the generation of income and direct jobs, especially at a time so complicated in the country’s economy, especially with the pandemic. The slaughterhouse has been the support of hundreds of families here in the city”, says Pinheiro, in his office.

This economic importance was the main argument of the city when going to court to try to release the slaughter, which had been suspended after allegations of ill-treatment, in 2018. But not only Amargosa sought justice. The state government, led by PT Rui Costa, and the federal government, led by Jair Bolsonaro (PL), did the same.

The case was decided by Kassio Nunes Marques, now minister of the STF and at the time, judge of the Federal Regional Court of the 1st Region (TRF-1). He did not enter into the merits of the civil-public action, which is still in court and calls for a ban on slaughter. In a decision of just over two pages, Nunes Marques agreed that the injunction of the Bahian court that suspended the sector was harming the economy of Bahia.

” it is legal and is supported by legal regulations issued by Organs competent bodies and the abrupt interruption of said industrial activity is likely to cause not only the companies created and dedicated to the activities irreparable damage or difficult to repair, but also to the municipalities that host the aforementioned slaughterhouses, such as the State of Bahia itself”, he wrote, releasing the sector again.

In Amargosa, Mayor Júlio Pinheiro considered the decision to be fair, but says he does not know well the businessmen responsible for the slaughterhouse that operates in the city. “It’s a Chinese group. They came here (at the city hall) once, but they are not well-known people in the city,” he says. both residents abroad, and the Brazilian Alex Franco Bastos.Company employees, interviewed on condition of anonymity, report that Chinese owners rarely visit the space, and that, on a daily basis, the activity is led by Bastos.

The report tried to interview him several times, going to the fridge, calling and sending messages via WhatsApp, but he never got back. He also sent a message to Zhen Yongwei, but he didn’t reply.

JBS, which leased the space to the trio of entrepreneurs three years ago, stated that “the entire operation of the mentioned plant is under the responsibility of the company” that leased the plant.

‘It’s like killing a dog’

Three times a week, about 400 donkeys arrive at Frino rd in closed trucks —40 per vehicle. Employees report that, in view of the heat, trips of up to 500 km and poor physical condition, animals they arrive at the company injured or even killed.

With little variation, most of the 90 workers earn around R$1.300 a month. They live in poor communities close to the slaughterhouse, places where the water supply is only provided three times a week and where it is still possible to see one or two donkeys working on agricultural tasks.

Although they depend of service to survive in a time of high unemployment and in a city without many alternatives, employees say they have difficulty dealing with the mass death of an animal that is part of their daily lives — they want the slaughterhouse to change the business model for the slaughter of cattle.

“For me it’s like killing a dog, a pet. We grow up riding donkeys, and now we have to see donkeys dying non-stop. It’s a lot of donkeys , friend. Really, there are 1.2 thousand weeks. No one can stand to see this situation anymore,” says João (fictitious name), who works at the slaughterhouse and depends on his salary to support his family. He spent months unemployed and, with no option, accepted a job. “I work because I have to, not because I agree. But if I close, how are the families here?”, he says.

Another employee, José, also says he has difficulty attending every day to so many slaughters. “We don’t even know why they’re doing this, what they’re going to do with them… Many arrive here injured, dying. It’s an animal we’ve seen since childhood, it’s part of our life. It’s complicated to participate in this, but the precision demands. I have children to raise, the situation is very difficult”, he says.

Poverty and slaughter

The donkey’s path to Amargosa is long.

The animals are collected from various points in the Northeast, such as around the city of Paulo Afonso, in the north of Bahia, a

km from the fridge. They are caught or sold by poor farmers who work in the sector to escape hunger, under the supervision of farmers.

One of these centers had a starving countryman as a character. In April, he was approached by the Military Police after an anonymous tip pointed out theft of donkeys in Paulo Afonso, in addition to alleged ill-treatment.

They were found with him14 animals, although he denied the thefts. According to the police report, the donkeys were in “a clear state of abuse”, injured, and without food and water for at least three days. But the donkeys were not from the sertanejo.

In the BO, he tells that he received R$ 14 per animal collected, the only support of the family. “It was with this money that I was living, using it to buy milk for the children, diapers and food for the house”, the document narrates. He also says that it was the second time he had hunted and sold donkeys, but that he had no money to feed them. “It tells that he took them just to put something to eat for his children.”

A civil policeman and farmer named Antônio Fernando Filho, from

bought the donkeys from the sertanejo years old, resident of the city of Rodelas, also in northern Bahia.

In the BO, he stated that he had more than 100 on his farm and that he passed them on to the Chinese —he also argued that he fed the animals and followed all sanitary rules.

In a telephone interview with BBC News Brasil, Filho says he worked in the area for two years, but stopped after the case narrated above. He still has 40 animals on his farm , but says that the place was leased by someone else, who collects donkeys in the interior of Piauí and Maranhão. “They are all eating hay and drinking water from the river”, he says.

The farmer claims that he received a commission of up to R$ 40 per animal collected—it was a supplement to his income as a civil police officer in Rodelas. “We used to pick them up in the woods, on the road, anywhere. When we gathered some 50, put it in a truck and sent it to the slaughterhouse in Amargosa, Simões Filho and Itapetinga (places of other licensed slaughterhouses).”

But, in recent months, the trade in the region of Paulo Afonso has decreased a lot, he says. “There are still a lot of donkeys, but I stopped too because there is a lot of competition today, everyone looking for donkeys to sell to the Chinese. There are almost no more animals here, it fell 90%. But the people need it, it’s very needy.”

Death and mistreatment

Once collected, the animals travel more than 300 km by truck to Chapada Diamantina, where they are stored in farms. given in the cities of Iaçu, Milagres and Itatim, about 40 km from the final destination in Amargosa.

On the day 20 November, the report found about 18 donkey in a caatinga area, on the margins of a practically deserted highway that connects the three cities. They were alone, grazing, a few pregnant females and a cub—a day later, they disappeared from the place. There was vegetation and water because it had rained days before, but this is not always the case.

On July 9th of this year, for example, the Military Police of Bahia received a complaint: hundreds of donkeys that they would be slaughtered in Frinordeste were dying of hunger and thirst at the Boa Esperança farm, in Itatim. They were found by Lieutenant Benjamin Pereira e Silva, commander of the PM platoon in the city.

“Unfortunately the situation was worse than we imagined. There were some 150 animals, which had come from the town of Rodelas. They were very debilitated, bruised, many females pregnant, many aborting. there was more grass or water, no food for them. It was a totally arid area. We found many dead animals, with vultures on top. There was no support from the veterinary team. treats”, reports the lieutenant.

“The next day, we returned to the farm and there were no more animals. They were all taken to another place”, says the policeman.

It wasn’t the first time this happened. In 2019, hundreds of donkeys were found in a similar situation in the cities of Canudos and Itapetinga, also in the interior of Bahia. In these cases, the animals would be destined for other slaughterhouses, not the one in Amargosa.

In Canudos, it is estimated that 150 of the approximately one thousand donkeys found died of starvation. The others were quite weakened. At the site, two Chinese immigrants were found, responsible for taking care of the herd.

“They were two young people who did not receive a salary to work there. They did not speak Portuguese, we had to use Google Translator”, says Patrícia Tatemoto, PhD in biology and researcher at the British NGO The Donkey Sanctuary, which works in the defense of the donkey against the ejiao market. “When we found them, they didn’t have food on the farm, they were hungry, they didn’t even have a bathroom. The police report indicated that they were in work analogous to slavery.”

The two immigrants they were still fined for mistreatment, but were never seen again in the region of Canudos.


Other The problem involving the donkey trade is a disease called glanders, a contagious zoonosis that affects horses and donkeys and can be transmitted to humans — the mortality rate is high, according to researchers. It is transmitted by contact of contaminated droplets with eyes, skin, mucous membranes and respiratory system.

In 2019, the Agricultural Defense Agency da Bahia (Adab) decided to examine the blood of 694 donkeys that were seized in Canudos. Ten of them were infected with Mormo and needed to be sacrificed—others 18 had equine infectious anemia, a disease caused by a virus.

“The contagion by the glanders bacteria occurs through the contact of infected animals with individuals, such as farmers and veterinarians,” explained Eusébio Lino Filho, resident physician in infectious diseases at the Hospital das Clínicas of the USP School of Medicine, at a public hearing on the matter at the Legislative Assembly of Bahia.

There were no reports of glanders in Brazil until 2019, when a child of years old, from the outskirts of Aracaju, presented symptoms of the disease, such as chest pain and shortness of breath —she had contact constant with horses.

“The X-ray showed an increase in the size of the heart, unusual for his age. Even on medication, the patient evolved poorly. The pressure dropped, he had several nodules in the lung and abscesses by body”, reports the doctor, who participated in the patient’s treatment. Diagnosed with glanders and treated by 11 days in the hospital, the child later improved and was discharged.

Even with cases of infection in donkeys, Adab decided to withdraw the mandatory examination of glanders in donkeys that are slaughtered in the three slaughterhouses .

The agency says that the decision followed the guidance of the Ministry of Agriculture: “From the point of view of animal health, with a view to controlling and eradicating the disease in the country, there are no gains in surveillance in whether to perform glanders tests on animals destined for slaughter”. It also informed that the establishments operate under the SIF (Federal Inspection Service). In Frinordeste, ministry inspectors check “transport conditions and visual health” of the animals, says the folder.

However, the Public Ministry and veterinarians think otherwise. For them, the activity is putting the health of workers at risk, in addition to creating a possible health problem that did not exist in the country.

“The export created a health risk, including for agribusiness . These animals are collected in various places, and then transported across the Northeast without us knowing where they come from. The businessmen who trade the donkeys have no idea of ​​the risk they are creating. It is a time bomb”, explains Chiara Oliveira, professor of Veterinary Medicine from UFBA (Federal University of Bahia), and one of the researchers who sheltered all donkeys apprehended in Canudos on a farm —of more than 534 initials, about 150 survived.

In last year’s technical note, the CRMV-BA (Regional Council of Veterinary Medicine of Bahia) stated that glanders are currently an “endemic disease” in the herd of horses and donkeys in the state. And that workers who handle animals, especially those from slaughterhouses, “run serious risks of contamination through the respiratory tract and mucous membranes (through the eyes, for example)”.

Prosecutor Julimar Barreto Ferreira , head of the Recôncavo Sul Regional Environmental Prosecutor’s Office, opened an inquiry to investigate the case and other allegations of irregularities. “We cannot create and maintain a market that puts the species and workers at great risk. This is what is happening today in Bahia”, he says, by telephone.

‘ Symbol for the Christian’

The CRMV-BA believes that, without a production chain, the pace of slaughter and the Chinese demand for ejiao can practically decimate the donkey population in the Northeast in a few years, a diagnosis shared by entities such as the National Forum for Animal Protection and Defense, the National Front for the Defense of Donkeys and The Donkey Sanctuary.

This scenario was registered in China itself, according to a study by researchers Richard Bennett and Simone Pfuderer, from the University of Reading, in the United Kingdom.

In 2000, the country had around 9 million heads —in 2015 , the number dropped to 2 million. In 2000, the annual production of eijiao was 1.2 ton — already in 2015, there were 5 tons. It is estimated that the country needs 5 million donkey skins per year, but since 2017, the internal stock is no longer able to supply the demand.

The Chinese business community’s solution was to look for animals in other countries, such as Kyrgyzstan, which they lost % of his herd of donkeys since 2016, according to a study by the NGO The Donkey Sanctuary. Countries like Mali, Ghana and Ethiopia have recently banned slaughter, although it still takes place clandestinely.

In Brazil, a study by USP points out that raising a donkey for slaughter would cost an average of R$ 4 a thousand —the gestation of a offspring takes months. On the other hand, a study by the British NGO estimates that, of all animals collected from the environment, 20% die before reaching the slaughterhouses.


In recent decades , the species lost its importance in rural agriculture after being exchanged for motorcycles. Free on roads and in the caatinga, the donkeys reproduced without a public policy focused on control or sanitary issues. Wandering along highways, they were also involved in serious car accidents.

At the beginning of the last decade, the government tried to encourage the consumption of donkey meat, as it happens in some countries, but the project did not take off due to cultural reasons: the population refuses to eat its meat.

Through Adab, the government of Bahia he says that it is not the agency’s responsibility to create a production chain and that a recent decree states that “females in the final third of their gestation will not be considered suitable for slaughter”, a measure that, for the agency, helps to renew the herd. In the same standard, says the Adab, “it is established that animals below 119 kg cannot be sent for slaughter either.”

The Ministry of Agriculture claims that it is responsible for the sanitary inspection of slaughterhouses, but that “control over the number of existing or bred animals, nor on the risk of extinction”. He also informed that the inspection of bodies linked to the paste “guarantees that the animals arrive (to the slaughterhouse) in good health and without signs of ill-treatment during transport.”

In Amargosa, Mayor Júlio Pinheiro says that the Chinese group promised to create a production chain for the animal, in addition to “bringing new species to the region”, which has not happened yet. He doesn’t believe the donkey can be wiped out. “This assessment is a mistake. The latest IBGE estimate speaks of nearly 1 million animals, most of which are free in the caatinga and on the highways, putting people’s lives at risk, without zootechnical and veterinary assistance to provide the animals with well-being. . We believe that this will not happen with a production with controlled slaughter, with inspection and norms”, he says.

In a city square, professor Joelson Alcântara, animal activist in Amargosa, think differently. For him, in addition to its historical importance for the sertanejo, the donkey is also a religious symbol for the Christian.

“In the Bible, Jesus rides a donkey when it enters Jerusalem. It is an animal so important that he participated in the life of Jesus Christ, and is being exterminated for a financial reason. There is no explanation”, he says.

In the song “Apology for the Donkey” (1976), Luiz Gonzaga also quotes Jesus when he sings that the donkey “is sacred”: “And in the flight to Egypt/ When I judge him announced/ The donkey it was the transport that took our Lord.”

And he continues: “The donkey is our brother, whether he likes it or not / The donkey has always been the greatest developmentalist in the sertão / It helped man in the work daily/ helped man/ helped Brazil to develop”.


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