The business proposal, though strange, seemed harmless, and the profits too good to pass up. But within a few months, after being inundated with photographs from illegal slaughterhouses, Jeremy wished he had never stumbled into Africa’s newest and most peculiar commodity trade.
In one blurred frame, a man he didn’t recognize wielded a club, preparing to strike a donkey tethered beside him. A dead donkey lay a short distance away, blood seeping into the dirt. Another picture showed the man crouched in a bushy clearing, skinning a live animal.
“Please stop contacting me,” Jeremy, a Cape Town investor who asked not to be identified by his real name, replied. “I told you I’m not interested.”
A boyish South African finance graduate of East Asian heritage, Jeremy first learned of the booming trade in donkey skins in late 2015, when a visiting Chinese industrialist approached him saying he was looking to buy 5,000 hides per month.
“He was offering insane prices, like hundreds of dollars apiece,” Jeremy recalled. He immediately began looking for local partners, unaware he was entering an industry that, while not technically illegal in South Africa, is dominated by black-market suppliers.
Across the continent, the price of donkey skins has skyrocketed in the last five years, fueled by demand in China. Used mainly for transport and to haul cargo, donkeys cost as little as $8 per head before the boom. Now they can sell for more than $150 each, spawning an illicit economy worth tens of millions of dollars each year, based on conservative estimates.
From Nigeria to South Africa, syndicates have taken to raiding farms and smuggling donkey skins to Chinese middlemen, some of whom also deal in banned wildlife products like ivory. Other, less overtly criminal outfits scour the countryside for willing sellers while skirting export bans and other regulations on when and how the animals can be slaughtered. With African governments scrambling to control the trade, and commercial breeders not yet able to meet increased demand, informal supply chains are wreaking havoc on rural economies that depend on donkeys for transport, while fueling abuse of the animals themselves.
The great African donkey rush is being fueled by ejiao, a 2,500-year-old traditional Chinese remedy prepared with gelatin from the animals’ skins. Ejiao is prescribed for ailments including anemia, insomnia, and excessive menstrual bleeding, though there is little clinical evidence of its efficacy. It is also a popular ingredient in beauty products, including face creams and moisturizers. Two hundred and fifty-gram slabs of the substance, which resemble resinous chocolate bars, sell for up to $350 each; in special circumstances, the price can be as much as 10 times higher. These extravagant costs reflect systemic shortages and insatiable appetite in China, where ejiao production now consumes some 4 million skins each year.
In the last two decades, China’s donkey population — once the world’s largest — contracted from 11 million to less than 6 million, while per capita GDP increased almost tenfold, from just over $1,800 in 1995 to more than $14,000 in 2015. Rapid industrialization and urban migration greatly reduced the need for donkeys in rural areas, while rising affluence in cities boosted demand for consumer products like ejiao. The result has been a surge in skins imports from developing countries, often with scant regard for the suffering of donkeys or the lives of people who depend on them.
"Traders and businessmen responded in a gold-rush style frenzy,” the Donkey Sanctuary, a welfare organization based in England, wrote in a report on the trade published earlier this year.
Jeremy had never heard of ejiao but was excited by the prospect of easy money. The owner of a small renewable energy firm, he had no experience dealing with livestock or exports, but in other respects he was ideally situated to enter the sector. His parents had emigrated from Taiwan years before he was born, and he’d grown up speaking Mandarin, meaning that he could communicate easily with Chinese importers.
But Jeremy needed donkeys, and to get them he turned to Claude, a stout Malawian man who claimed that he had access to an equine abattoir and a network of willing sellers. Claude, who asked not to be identified by his real name, asked Jeremy for a loan of $3,800 to procure the first batch of skins, which he suggested selling to a Chinese exporter named Liu Gin after the buyer who initially approached Jeremy pulled out. The loan was repayable in two weeks with 30 percent interest, meaning that Jeremy stood to pocket nearly $1,200.
“It was purely a business opportunity. Who would say no to that return?” he said. So he photocopied Claude’s ID book and residential lease to avoid being conned and asked his lawyer to draw up a comprehensive loan agreement. On Aug. 4, Jeremy transferred the money to Claude from his company account.
Claude had assured Jeremy that he was sourcing donkeys legally, but in reality he was operating an illicit skins-trading syndicate. While no laws explicitly forbid exporting donkey skins from South Africa, the industry is bound by strict animal welfare and food safety regulations, which require that the animals be slaughtered in registered abattoirs. Claude was buying donkeys directly from villagers and illegally butchering them on the spot — saving time and money by operating outside the law.
The South African government has clamped down on illegal outfits like Claude’s, making dozens of arrests for theft and animal cruelty in the last 18 months. Increasingly, authorities are finding that donkey smugglers have ties to organized crime. Last September, while rescuing 70 donkeys from a farm run by a skins-smuggling group, police discovered a stash of dried abalone, a South African shellfish species exported illegally by the ton to China in exchange for methamphetamines and other drugs.
Chinese and Taiwanese syndicates, collectively known as Triad gangs, have long profited from the illegal export of rhino horn, ivory, abalone, and precious minerals from South Africa, shipping drugs and migrants entering illegally in the opposite direction. When the donkey boom hit, it appears that these networks began dealing in hides as well.
“Chinese importers began asking about donkeys in 2014,” said a former South African trade consultant who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “There were seven companies each looking to buy around 10,000 skins a year. It was a big opportunity for rural development, but there were no frameworks to support legal trade. And when you can’t go legally, you go through the mafia.”
In addition to fueling criminal activity, the sudden spike in hide prices has made donkeys prohibitively expensive for rural farmers who rely on them. In Niger, for instance, average donkey prices jumped from $34 to $145 in just five years. Last September, after traders had shipped 80,000 skins in just nine months, Niger’s government joined Senegal, Mali, and Burkina Faso in banning further exports. Without intervention, “the animals will be decimated,” an unnamed Nigerien official told the BBC.
“If the trade can be regulated and monitored, then there is a genuine opportunity to create a viable export market,” said Eric Olander, a journalist who founded the weekly China in Africa Podcast. “But at present laws are unclear and unevenly enforced, with vulnerable rural communities threatened by surging prices and poaching.”
At the periphery of the syndicate that Jeremy unwittingly bankrolled was a slender Malawian immigrant in his late 20s named Sam. “A Chinese buyer was offering good money,” he said. “These guys needed help with their supply.”
A cash-strapped church caretaker, Sam began working as a fixer for Claude’s outfit, linking his buyers with farmers from villages outside Johannesburg. One day last August, he hired a minibus taxi and drove west of Johannesburg to a tiny rural settlement near the town of Ventersdorp. There he purchased 25 donkeys, recruiting a group of locals to help process the skins. They killed the animals one by one, knifing them at the base of the skull or striking them between the eyes with a hammer. Sam earned $75 that day, a small fraction of what the haul was worth.
When Jeremy learned that he’d financed a criminal enterprise, he quit the skins business completely. Claude’s syndicate collapsed less than six months later, in February, when police arrested Gin, the main buyer behind the operation, for falsely declaring a shipment of 300 skins at Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo International Airport. Customs officials intercepted the shipment, which was destined for Hong Kong, after noticing a foul smell rising from wooden boxes labeled “cladding.” Four days later, police confiscated more than 1,000 skins from a farm Gin had allegedly rented outside the city.
Each of the confiscated skins would have fetched more than $500 in China, for a total of more than $650,000. It’s the kind of payday that keeps Chinese importers coming back despite the risks — and young men like Jeremy, Claude, and Sam clamoring for a share of the spoils.
“If I could sell skins, I wouldn’t be in this situation,” said Sam, who has fallen on hard times since the syndicate ended and is on the lookout for a new buyer. “I need to start trading again. Even five skins would be enough.”
Photograph © Shaun Swingler
A thin, dreadlocked man, middle-aged but fit and ropey, spends his days digging for diamonds in South Africa’s Namaqualand desert. That he is known simply as Rasta, in a region home to several hundred Rastafarians, indicates the sweep of his reputation. A prospector and geologist with no formal training, he has constructed dozens of tunnels in the last 15 years, granting diggers access to untold thousands of diamonds. Working by hand with rudimentary equipment, he excavates for weeks at a time, hoping to strike layers of diamond-bearing gravel. His operations are unlawful and exceedingly dangerous. A tunnel he helped open in 2012 collapsed after a few months, killing 10 men.
Though that disaster alarmed him, Rasta has not stopped digging. He is among the best known diggers in an area where illicit mining is endemic: a folkloric character in a marginal resource economy, renowned for his commitment and apparent fearlessness. Mine closures a decade ago left a legacy of chronic unemployment in Namaqualand, an arid, sparsely populated region with few alternative industries. Though legal mining is no longer profitable enough for companies to employ large numbers of people, enough diamonds remain in the ground to lure hundreds of diggers to risk their lives and break the law.
A week before Christmas, on a scorching summer afternoon, I join Rasta inside one of his tunnels. A spate of police clampdowns on illegal digging has infuriated him, and he wants me to comprehend the physical difficulty of his work. We drive into an abandoned mine pit the size of a football stadium, its bare, chalk-colored walls reflecting the noonday heat. Though mining companies are legally required to rehabilitate old sites, created by stripping away tons of sediment from the bedrock, vast expanses of the Namaqualand diamond fields, scarred and devoid of vegetation, illustrate how seldom this remedial action takes place. Rasta, who is excitable and speaks at a blistering pace, directs us towards a crumbling cliff, six stories high. At its base, obscured by a heap of red sand, stands the entrance to a narrow shaft.
He bends himself inside the opening to the tunnel, balancing on a ledge. “I don’t care anymore,” he mutters. “People must see what we do to survive. Fuck this government.” He descends fast, straddling the sheer drop, his hands and feet finding shallow depressions in the walls. The earth muffles his voice. His outline blurs in the dark. Then it is time to follow. My palms are clammy and I’m afraid I’ll slip, but the gravel, despite sifting loose in places, holds firm. At the bottom, 20 feet from the surface, it smells like wet clay.
Read more at roadsandkingdoms.com
Saneliswe Radebe was alone in the living room when the gunmen arrived. Sitting on the sofa watching TV, the slender 17-year old heard a vehicle crawl toward the house in low gear. It was March of 2016, near the end of the South African summer, and already dark outside at 7:30 p.m. A blue light flashed through the curtains. “It’s the police. We’re looking for Bazooka,” one of the men shouted, thumping on the front door.
Kaltom works seven days a week. On weekdays, he doesn’t pause once until after 09:00, when the morning crush begins to subside. He is loud, attention-seeking, a compulsive prankster — temperamentally suited to a hyperkinetic public transport sector that has resisted several attempts, over the last 25 years, to bring it under tighter state control. Minibus taxis move more than 15-million South Africans daily, operating by the same informal market logic that impels Kaltom to skirt the law.
In the fishing community of Hangberg, below the westernmost kink of the Cape Peninsula’s crooked spine, lives a man who has, by his reckoning, mugged more than forty hikers and mountain cyclists in the last eight years. His name, for the purposes of this account, is Norton. He is diminutive and quick-eyed, with slicked hair and a bony jaw. He has thin scars across his forehead and neck. Although he is older than thirty, he looks, from afar, like a compact teenager, with arms too long for his body. He is not at all physically imposing but is capable of astonishing acts of violence.
On June 25, a shipment of 241 African grey parrots arrived at Johannesburg International Airport, purportedly from a breeder in Dubai. Sealed inside several wooden boxes, the birds passed through customs without being inspected by conservation officials, a breach of import regulations. The importer was a retired state attorney and an executive member of the Parrot Breeders Association of South Africa, Dieter Horstmann. He drove his parrots to a private quarantine facility that afternoon. Horstmann’s troubles began a month later.
A four-part series investigating the Bontekoe mine collapse in 2012, where 10 illicit diamond diggers lost their lives. Produced with an investigative reporting grant from the Taco Kuiper Foundation.
The BP garage parking lot at Cape Town International Airport has space for more than 60 cars. It is full from before dawn until midnight all weekend, but not with customers. Out in the lot, drivers lean against their vehicles or rest with their doors open and seats reclined; when it rains they shut the doors and their windows mist up. A BP security guard with a badge and clipboard paces the tarmac, monitoring how long each driver has been parked. Until the guard tells them to move, or until their smartphones chime like slot machines, or until the late flights arrive and the airport empties, the drivers do not leave.
In March 2014, while harvesting marijuana in a remote valley outside Port St Johns, Cynthia*, now 56, was sprayed with herbicide from a police helicopter. “The pilot spotted me and flew closer,” she said. “I was frightened and tried to run, to shelter beneath a tree. But the helicopter followed me.” As she ran the rotors beat metres above her head, blasting her with dust. The noise disoriented her. Eyes shut, she waved her arms, signaling for the pilot to stop. Then she felt the droplets against her skin.
The fishing village of Paternoster, on South Africa’s west coast, is known for its quaint cottages, unspoiled beaches, and entrenched culture of marine poaching. A jarring scene greets visitors arriving for the first time. At the entrance to the settlement, a dusty intersection with signs to dozens of guest houses and restaurants, groups of men hawk live crayfish, yelling, “Kreef! Kreef!”—the local Afrikaans term for the delicacy—whenever cars approach. This street trade has become a defining feature of Paternoster in the past two decades, and consists exclusively of illegally harvested product. But transactions take place in the open, and holidaymakers drive off daily with their share of the catch.
Jacob rolled off the boat into black water. He fastened supplies to his dive belt, adjusted his goggles, and with an accomplice began kicking toward Robben Island. The old lighthouse, built when the island was still a leper colony in the 19th century, lit the northwestern shore in dim flashes as the men drew nearer. It was just enough light to orient by in the tossing swells. Across the channel, the city of Cape Town appeared as a thin band of lights, its mountains black against the sky.
The villagers keep watch from January, waiting for police helicopters to thud over the hills. Every year, for nearly three decades, their plantations have been poisoned towards the end of summer, right before harvest, leaving behind fields of withered stalks. “We hear rumours that they are coming, that they’ve started spraying nearby,” said one woman. “Then we know the helicopters will be arriving soon — but there is nothing we can do.”
Xolobeni activist Nonhle Mbuthuma broke down in tears last month while addressing a mining conference in Cape Town. “Our people are being attacked. People are dying because of this,” she said, describing her community’s struggle to prevent mining on its land. Six weeks later, her friend and colleague Sikhosiphi ‘Bazooka’ Rhadebe was assassinated.
One man's ghost town is another man's business opportunity. This is the view of Koos van der Merwe, 54, who in 2014 decided to sell his house outside Johannesburg and buy a sports complex in Kleinzee, a defunct mining town high on South Africa's west coast. (Photo essay with Kent Andreasen.)
Cattle rancher Robin Fowler, 60, believes that farmers are eternal optimists. Last November, when summer rains failed to arrive in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, he sold off 160 Nguni cattle, or 80% of his stock. Drought — South Africa’s most severe since rainfall records began in 1904 — had parched the hills, leaving sparse fodder for grazing. Fowler, recognizing that he had no alternative, made plans to thin his herd.
Cape Town resident Russell P Stark* has been visiting Sandy Bay for more than 35 years. In the early 1980s, as an inexperienced teenager, his primary concern while sunbathing nude was the threat of police raids, which would send him and his indecently exposed companions scuttling for shelter between the rocks. These days he worries more about gawkers, cameras and being mugged. The beach has changed.
The truck drivers parked in dry scrub beside the highway, lit fires to ward off the evening cold and waited until dawn to release their cargo. They were a few hundred meters outside Hanover, a small town deep in South Africa’s Karoo semidesert. The trucks had traveled nearly 24 hours from Cape Town, tracing old apartheid patterns as they departed the city. They were carrying a total of 15,912 pedigreed pigeons.
It is simple enough to get a cellphone fixed in Victoria Road, Woodstock, provided you have the money and it is not midday on Friday, when the technicians close their shops and go to mosque. There are eight small cellphone repair businesses, all owned and run by young Pakistani men, situated along a single half-kilometre stretch between Salt River Road and the Woodstock Town Hall. The shops can be found inside hair salons, convenience stores and clothing wholesalers, marked by interchangeable signs — Z.K. Cellphones, Happy Cellular, Cell For You — and plastic accessories pressed up against the windows.
On Friday 7 August four men sat around a table in Hangberg, Hout Bay, watching the harbour and waiting for the body to arrive. Two of the men were drinking beer out of small glasses and smoking cigarettes, flicking the ash into an empty abalone shell. Angelo Josephs, the owner of the house, leaned against a pair of sliding doors overlooking the bay. It was three o'clock in the afternoon. The water was smooth. Josephs punched more airtime into his phone and made another call. “Here, they’re coming now."