The donkeys of South Africa have just experienced their worst year in living memory, which is why a rather crowded Karoo sanctuary needs our help.
Words Julienne du Toit Pictures Chris Marais www.karoospace.co.za.
At Africa’s largest donkey sanctuary, just outside the town of Prince Albert, the day starts early. Minutes after first light, manager Brenda van der Merwe and her two dogs do a quick patrol to see how the donkeys have fared during the night.
The place is full of them. They are in every paddock, lying down or standing, long ears swivelling forward and back, soft muzzles seeking out stray bits of forage. There are old ones, young ones, with hairy or smooth coats, sick or healthy, white, black, grey, brown, with Biblical crosses on their back or without, a veritable United Nations of Donkeys. And over it all, peace, an almost tangible sigh of animal relief.
There are also babies. On the day we visit the Karoo Donkey Sanctuary, we meet a tiny little black foal called Thunder and a fuzzy grey one called Greyton. Thunder is shy but Greyton, only two weeks old, has appointed himself as sanctuary marketing manager and guest ambassador.
The charismatic foal is staring absent-mindedly into the distance when we drift into his field of vision, walking alongside Brenda. He immediately perks up his outsize ears and springs into action, gambolling towards us as if we are long-lost friends. Greyton loves cuddling up to humans, utterly trusting in our goodness. “These are what I call the ‘Born Free’ donkeys,” says sanctuary co-owner Jonno Sherwin. “They know nothing of what the older ones have been through.”
Almost all the adults were rescued from lives of being whipped, overworked and half-starved. Some arrived with huge wounds from the chafing of badly-fitting cart harnesses. Many had their ears chopped in half to make identification easy for owners. “We found one donkey on the Cape Flats pulling a cart loaded with a rusted car, driven by three men who took turns beating him,” says Jonno. He and his partner Johan Hugo renamed him Sir Robert.
In short, nearly every donkey that wasn’t born in the sanctuary has experienced some kind of dreadful cruelty at the hand of humans. Many of them were accustomed to being fed cardboard, and as a result they still regard a journalist’s notebook as a tasty snack. But here at the sanctuary, they have access to healthy food, and wounds are taken care of. Perhaps for the first time in their lives, they can relax a little.
The Karoo Donkey Sanctuary sprawls over 18 hectares at the base of the Swartberg mountains, only two kilometres outside Prince Albert. Jonno (who runs an online furniture business) and Johan (a doctor), both based in Cape Town, bought the land in 2012 after falling in love with the area on a 2008 visit.
They put a few animals on the land – just a few ostriches and Nguni cows at first. Then came donkeys, a couple at a time, all rescued from appalling situations in the Western and Northern Cape. Soon there were nearly 40, along with some horses, pigs, chickens and dozens of goats, each one named by Jonno and Johan.
But one day everything changed. In late January last year, Jonno was alerted to an auction of hundreds of donkeys and horses in Hartswater, Northern Cape. Most of them, he found, were destined for the abattoir and the new horrifyingly cruel trade in donkey skins.
This trade is the result of demand in China for a traditional medicine called ejiao. It is made by boiling donkey hides to produce a gel-like substance used to treat menopause symptoms, anaemia and a weak libido. The trade has caused donkey populations in the Far East to plummet. At least 1.8 million donkey hides are bought and sold worldwide every year for this medicine, but the demand is thought to be at least double or triple that.
From 2015 onwards, reports came through of donkeys in Africa being targeted.
Botswana, with a comparatively large donkey population, was one of the first to set up abattoirs and sell hides to buyers for Chinese firms. Even though ‘legal’, the donkey trade quickly became synonymous with terrible cruelty, neglect, starvation, livestock theft, money laundering and carcasses contaminating important water sources. In mid-2017, Botswana did a U-turn and banned the trade but by then it had taken hold on the continent.
In South Africa, there were dozens of gruesome reports about donkeys being stolen and starved or bludgeoned to death, sometimes skinned alive in backyard slaughterhouses, their carcasses abandoned, and hides – including those from foals – packed into containers for sale to China. National Geographic magazine recorded that abalone poachers were also getting in on the trade.
Jonno headed off to the Hartswater auction hoping to save 40 donkeys or so. But when he saw the terrible conditions, his heart broke. Mares and foals were separated and screaming for one another. The animals were crowded into enclosures, many skeletal and on the verge of death. It was a terrible sight, one that will remain seared into Jonno’s memory forever.
In the end, he brought back 300 donkeys along with a few horses. Many of the mares were pregnant, so the sanctuary population went through the roof. “I find it amazing that we can stand among them after all they’ve been through,” says Brenda, who cuddles Greyton before generously offering me a chance to hug him. “There is absolutely nothing like being mugged by a baby donkey,” she adds, counting it among her salary perks. That and the Karoo’s therapeutic stillness in the late afternoons.
Originally from Johannesburg, Brenda has worked with horses for years, so the ways of equids are nothing strange to her. Still, she finds donkeys quite singular. Intelligent, alert, unexpectedly affectionate, sensitive yet stoic. “With a horse, you’re in no doubt about what they’re experiencing. But donkeys tend to underplay everything. Often they’ve got something serious going on but they hardly show it.”
For thousands of years, donkeys have been beasts of burden, but Jonno doesn’t see them like that at all. “They are the most sentient of animals, wonderful companions. Each one has such a distinct personality. They’re quirky and sensitive and learn things so quickly.”
Staffers Steven Pieterse and Jan Malan are also mad about the donkeys and their gentle natures. They and temporary workers Frederik Arends, Petrus Plaatjies, Hannes Williams, Shaun Keyser, Abraham Sass and Samuel Plaatjies all have their favourites and are often seen giving them surreptitious hugs and pats.
Since the beginning of 2017, Jonno has managed to find suitable homes for 30 of the donkeys, despite complicating issues like African horse sickness inoculations and quarantines in the Western Cape. If he were willing to sell them off to cart owners, or even to large commercial farms looking for guardian animals, the sanctuary population might have shrunk dramatically by now. But he refuses for fear they will once again encounter neglect or cruelty.
“It’s my dream that every donkey here – except for a few dozen, maybe – gets a ‘forever home’,” says Jonno. “That would ideally be with a companion animal on a farm or smallholding.”
Donkeys are natural herd animals. If they can’t hang with their own kind, they’ll seek out a horse, a human or, even better, a zebra or two. If there’s nothing else, sheep or even chickens are fine. At a push, they’ll make do with cows, dogs and alpacas. But they draw the line at goats. Nomadic herders in the Richtersveld have great trouble keeping the two species anywhere near each other. Gathering the livestock takes days because the donkeys head for the hills, withdrawing their long noses away from the smelly goats.
Practically every day Jonno gets calls for help. But unfortunately there is no more room at the inn. So he and Johan are pouring their energies into finding suitable new homes and feed for the 300 donkeys at the sanctuary, along with 30 horses, 15 goats, three sheep, 13 cows and one zebra.
“You have to pick your battles in life,” says Jonno. “This one is mine and that of everyone who loves donkeys.”