Shortage of donkeys turns TCM medication into a luxury product

Shortage of donkeys has turned ejiao – donkey-hide gelatin used in traditional Chinese medication – into a luxury product.

Zhou Han tasted donkey-hide gelatin, known as ejiao in Chinese, for the first time to relieve her period pain.

Zhou’s mother purchased 250 grams of ejiao for 700 yuan (US$105) in a drug store after she heard that the traditional Chinese health care product can enrich blood and benefit women’s skin.

The store processed the medicine into a paste mixing it with ingredients such as walnuts, red dates and rice wine. Zhou,25, takes it twice daily.

“I felt comfortable in the first weeks after I tried it,” said Zhou, who works at a PR company.

With a history of around 2,500 years, ejiao is made by soaking and stewing donkey skin and refining the results into a tonic. There are claims that it can tonify blood, boost immunity and treat a range of ailments from anemia and dry coughs to dizziness and insomnia.

Nowadays, it has been rebranded as a health care product used in food, drink or even face creams for the country’s growing middle class.

According to the Qianzhan Industry Research Institute, the production of China’s ejiao producers has grown from 3,200 tons in 2013 to 5,600 tons in 2016, with an annual growth above 20 percent.

“More than 10 years ago, the consumers of donkey-hide gelatin were mainly from the Yangtze River Delta. The medicine has become widely known by more Chinese now,” said Cai Jun, a professor of nutritional studies at Longhua Hospital under Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Donkey-hide gelatin has seen its price soar.

In late November, Dong’e Ejiao Co Ltd, China’s largest donkey-hide gelatin producer, said it had raised the ex-factory price of its two major products, ejiao in solid bars and mixed with other ingredients in syrup form, by 10 percent and 5 percent, respectively.

According to Wang Min, an analyst with a Shandong-based consulting firm, the current ex-factory price of Dong’e ejiao bar is more than 12 times that of 2007, while its market price is 2,698 yuan per 500 grams, around 10 times that of 2007.

Other ejiao brands have also raised their prices on major e-commerce platforms, making what was once a common supplement now a luxury item.

“The price of donkey-hide gelatin has rocketed up very fast. My monthly salary now equals less than 1.5 kilograms,” said Ma Lei, a longtime consumer of donkey-hide gelatin from Jinan, capital of Shandong Province. Ma takes around one teaspoon of ejiao daily.

China’s donkey population has nearly halved from 9.4 million in 1996 to 5.4 million in 2015, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.

Industry insiders believe that there are now around 5 million donkeys in China, and the annual slaughter rate is about 1 million. Many donkey-hide gelatin manufacturers started importing the skin.

The scarcity of donkey skin has also led to the flooding of counterfeit products claiming to be donkey-hide gelatin into the market. They may be made from the skins of mules, horses or pigs.

“Donkeys used to be a pack animal for farmers. However, as agricultural mechanization increases, fewer farmers are raising donkeys,” said Zheng Zhong, who is in charge of Shandong Lyubang, a company which manages donkey-based food products.

“The animal’s low fertility rate and long gestation period have also discouraged business people,” said Zheng.

Special Reports