Vanessa Gischkow Garbini

Can International Law Protect Brazilian Donkeys from Extinction?

This piece was written for Lewis & Clark’s Emerging Topics in Animal Law course. All views expressed are those of the author.

By Vanessa Gischkow Garbini


  1. The current situation of Northeast Brazilian donkeys

The increasing demand for donkey skin, driven by the production of eijao, a traditional Chinese medicine, is threatening the Northeast donkey population in Brazil. The situation gained public attention in 2018 when a donkey farm in Itapetinga, Bahia was closed down by the Municipal Environment Department after reports of animal mistreatment.[1] The animals, who belonged to the Chinese company Cuifeng Lin, have been gathered in the farm where they were found before being taken to a slaughterhouse. The inspectors found 657 donkeys in a situation of abandonment, crowded in a reduced area of 7 hectares without food or water and surrounded by carcasses and bones of about 200 other donkeys.[2] Bahia is the only Brazilian state that formally signed a trade agreement with the Chinese government for donkey skin and meat exports. 

The Northeastern donkey is a specific local breed of rustic animals adapted to the semiarid region, where 90% of the donkey’s population in the country is.[4] Despite having once played an important socio-economic role in agriculture, transport of goods, and mining, among others, donkey use has declined with the advance of technology and mechanized farming.[5] That led to a massive abandonment of donkeys, who ended up roaming around fields and roads.

In an attempt to solve the spread of abandoned donkeys, the Brazilian Federal government encouraged the slaughter of donkeys for the export of meat and other derivatives to other countries, including China.[6] This incentive became a real business, as some animals can be captured from the roads, and others may be acquired by extremely low prices ranging from US$4.00 to US$15.00.[7]

As a result, the donkey population in Brazil is drastically decreasing. According to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), in 2011 there were 974,688 donkeys.[8] That number dropped to 376,874 in 2017.[9] Also, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reported a reduction from 1.31 million donkeys in 1994 to 822,00 in 2018, a decrease of 37.2%.[10] Due to this alarming situation, researchers and scientists in veterinary science and animal science estimate that Northeastern donkey will be extinct in mid-2022.[11]

Of course, the effects produced by increased industrialization and mechanization in all countries that developed in those areas in the last years are also probable causes for the global reduction of the donkey population. Taking China as an example, it is noteworthy that the country’s economy has risen extraordinarily between 1990 and 2018,   

As result of the abandonment and roaming, donkeys who used to be domesticated started reproducing and giving birth on Brazilian roads, meaning that the newborn donkeys usually have never had any relationship with humans. Actually, thousands of donkeys were already reported to have gone feral.[14] The latter information could be the key to help protecting Northeast Brazilian donkeys.

This piece is going to analyze the situation of the Brazilian donkeys through the perspective of international law. In order to answer the title’s question, which features species- and individual-level aspects, a pair of international frameworks will be studied. The chosen instruments are the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)  

  1. Possibility of protection under CITES

To protect Brazilian Northeastern donkeys from international trade, their inclusion in one of the Appendices of the CITES could be considered. Said Convention has a specific Appendix (I) for species threatened with extinction which are or may be affected by international trade[17] – and that is exactly the current situation of Brazilian donkeys.

However, CITES is directed to protecting wild animals, not domesticated animals – which would be the general accepted status of Brazilian Northeast donkeys. In fact, appendix I of CITES explicitly excludes from the protection of the Convention domesticated forms of Equus africanus, called Equus asinus, the scientific name of the donkeys.  That means CITES considers all donkeys domesticated animals and therefore not included in the scope of the treaty. Nevertheless, if we take into account the reality of the Brazilian donkeys, they do not fit CITES’ categorization, as they (or at least many of them) may no longer be considered domesticated.

What is happening in Brazil is a reality in many countries that have recently gone through industrialization, mechanization, and the advances of technology. As agriculture used to be one of the main economic resources, donkeys were an important tool for work and transportation of people and goods, and, indeed, in order to do that, they had to be domesticated. Yet, with the passage of time and the enrichment of nations, those animals stopped being as useful to humans as they once were and became an itinerant and feral population.

Thus, it could be argued that donkeys from all those countries cannot be considered domesticated anymore. That being the case, then CITES parameters for donkeys are no longer true, and demand change.

  1. The gap in international law and the solution through CAP

One of the main reasons the argument in favor of changing CITES to include donkeys under its protection as feral animals might be the apparent existence of a gap in international law regarding the protection of domesticated animals. It seems international law lacks a global instrument that is able to protect animals that are neither categorized as wild nor are considered part of the food industry.

But when it comes to improving animal protection, the more efforts being made in parallel, the better. Thus, while the argument in favor of donkey’s inclusion in CITES, a Convention ratified by 183 nations, is persuasive, a “light at the end of the tunnel” can be also seen in initiatives that, although not yet in force, would fill this gap.

The Convention on Animal Protection (CAP), a draft treaty proposed by the Lawyers for the CAP, is an example of such initiatives. The treaty,  which can be accessed here, provides regulations on human interactions with animals in several broad categories, including companion animals (Article 10); commercial animals (Article 11); animals used in scientific research and testing (Article 12); and animals used in entertainment (Article 13).

CAP was designed to support the welfare of all animals. It even has a definition of domestic animals as “any animal of a species that, within the context of the local culture, has traditionally been under the physical control of, bred by, and used by humans” (Article 2(f)).[20] That category would, therefore, fit donkeys that, for any reason, are not considered feral. In relation to feral donkeys, they could be contemplated under CAP’s wildlife definition, which includes any animal “of a species that has escaped human control and has established a self-sustaining reproducing population within a particular habitat” (Article 2(h)).[21]

Besides, nothing about the skin trade resonates with animal welfare. Donkeys are treated cruelly by many traders who transport the animals for days without offering them food, water, or rest. As a Convention dedicated to the well-being of animals as individuals, not as collectives, CAP could regulate this trade and improve the welfare of the victims. By recognizing animals as sentient beings with intrinsic values in its Article 1(2), the enforcement of CAP would help shifting the look towards donkeys as products of a business, emphasizing their quality as subjects of their own interests – and, therefore, worthy of individual consideration.

Finally, it is important to underline that the other main goal of CAP, besides improving animal welfare, is preventing future pandemics by identifying high-risk interactions between animals and humans, including the capture, sale, and trade of those animals (Article 4). That concern has a lot to do with the donkeys’ situation, as studies have already shown the high risk of zoonosis in donkey farms.  

  1. Conclusions

Although there is no direct tool currently available in international law to protect Brazilian donkeys from extinction, there are some avenues that can be explored in order to do so. The first one is promoting a new interpretation on how donkeys are categorized under CITES, in order to grant them protection under said Convention. That seems to be the only avenue available taking into account the international provisions that are currently in force.

The second avenue might be a more effective – although achievable in longer term – solution, consisting in the adoption, by nations, of an international instrument on animal welfare for all animals, including domesticated animals. Much has been said about the importance of such treaty in international animal law, and many drafts have been presented and proposed. The Convention on Animal Protection (CAP) has all provisions needed to protect donkeys from that are victimized by international skin trade all over the world. Therefore, efforts to promote CAP are also efforts to protect Brazilian donkeys from extinction.


[1] TV Sudoeste, Com 200 jumentos mortos por maus-tratos, fazenda de criação para exportação para o Vietnã é interditada na BA, G1 (Sept. 11, 2018)

[2] Id.

[3] Mariana Bombo Perozzi Gameiro et al., Brazilian donkey slaughter and exports from 2002 to 2019, 58 Braz J Vet Res Anim Sci., 2 (2021).

[4] Jamisson Bispo de Sousa Santos et al., Endoparasites of donkeys (Equus asinus) used in commercial skin exploitation in the Northeast of Brazil, 58 Braz J Vet Res Anim Sci., 2 (2021).

[5] Zoe Raw et al., Donkeys in transition: changing use in a changing world, 58 Braz J Vet Res Anim Sci., 3 (2021).

[6] Thereza Cristina Bório dos Santos Calmon de Bittencourt, How much is a donkey worth?, 58 Braz J Vet Res Anim Sci., 2 (2021).

[7] Id.

[8] Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística – IBGE. Efetivo de asininos em 31.12 e participações relativa e acumulada no efetivo total, segundo as Unidades da Federação e os 20 municípios com os maiores efetivos, em ordem decrescente – 2012, (Oct. 24, 2021, 04:12 PM),

[9] Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística – IBGE. Censo agropecuário, (Oct. 17, 2021, 03:03 PM)

[10] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations – FAO, FAOSTAT, (Oct. 24, 2021, 05:52 PM), In order to research the number of donkeys using FAO tool, the term “ass” must be applied to the search.

[11] Redação Hypeness, Jumento pode desaparecer até meados de 2022, Hypness, (Aug. 10, 2021),

[12] Richard Bennett & Simone Pfuderer, The Potential for New Donkey Farming Systems to Supply the Growing Demand for Hides, 10 Animals, 2 (2020).

[13] Id.

[14] Stephen Blakeway, The Multi-dimensional Donkey in Landscapes of Donkey-Human Interaction, 2 REL.: BEYOND Anthropocentrism 59 (2014).

[15] Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, July 1975.

[16] Lawyers for the CAP, Convention on Animal Protection (1st ed., 2020).

[17] Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, Appendix I, July 1975.

[18] Id.

[19] Lawyers for the CAP, Convention on Animal Protection, art. 4 (1st ed., 2020).

[20] Id., art. 2(f).

[21] Id., art. 2(h).

[22] The Donkey Sanctuary, Under the skin, (Nov. 2019)

[23] Id.


Vanessa Gischkow Garbini