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April 6, 2011

The Long Haul: A Glimpse into the Lives of Working Equines in Tanzania

HSI works with local organizations to improve the welfare of working donkeys

Humane Society International

  • TAPO is working to improve conditions for donkeys in Tanzania. The HSUS

  • Michael George of TAPO demonstrates a new harness system, better suited to a donkey's body. HSI

  • While vital to the livelihood of many in the developing world, donkeys are often left to forage for what they can find. HSI

  • HSI's Kelly Coladarci assist with the treatment of a severely wounded donkey. HSI

  • A major component of TAPO's work involves classroom education for donkey owners. HSI

by Kelly Coladarci

As part of our donkey welfare initiative, HSI has been providing funding for the fieldwork and educational programs of the Tanzanian Animal Protection Organization (TAPO). In December 2010, I traveled to Tanzania to help out on the ground with animal care and field surgery and to see TAPO’s work firsthand.

While many people in Kahama, Tanzania rely on donkeys to eke out a living, the animals usually aren’t treated very well. In Kahama and many other parts of Africa, it’s common to see working donkeys wearing yokes designed for oxen. Donkeys’ bodies are shaped differently, and without adjustments to the harnessing system, these yokes put the weight of the load on their long, thin necks, inflicting severe strain, injury, and sores.

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Yohana Kashililah, the founder TAPO, says that the use of oxen carts and single-shaft carts without harnessing systems—along with beatings by uneducated or cruel owners—are the main contributors to the donkeys’ suffering. In addition, the packs strapped to donkeys’ backs are tied in such a way that they often interfere with breathing, and they’re made of materials that are rough and chafe against the donkeys’ skin. Because of the lack of accessible veterinary care, the resulting wounds are sometimes fatal and generally inhumane.

Making progress

But there are signs of hope for donkeys in Tanzania. In 2008, the country passed the Tanzania Animal Welfare Act—a landmark step in Africa, where there are few laws protecting animals. Enforcement will fall under district veterinarians, who are tasked with overseeing scores and sometimes hundreds of villages—a fact that makes community buy-in crucial.

In Kahama, TAPO has sought to engage the community directly, taking on the mistreatment of donkeys through humane education and by involving local artisans in the creation of a harness better suited to equine anatomy. The goal is to change the image of the donkey in peoples’ minds as an object and become an investment for poverty reduction through availability of proper harnessing materials within the district.

It’s not usually a matter of deliberate cruelty, according to Kashililah. Many locals, he says, “have no time or resources to cope with the needs of their animals after they have cared for their families as best as their resources allow.” But the reality of widespread poverty, in combination with the widely held belief that donkeys are inherently stubborn and must be beaten in order to work, can make for a terrible situation for the animals. They have little access to water, and may only feed on whatever grass or garbage they can find. In Kahama, those lucky enough to own donkeys often rent them to others in the “off hours,” which can mean that the animals work almost ceaselessly.

Acting locally

TAPO is working to change all this with its public outreach and educational programs. To be effective, the group works within the framework of local customs. Community pressure to enforce the new law is essential, because a single district veterinarian cannot patrol the 200-plus villages in the region.

The group does not tell locals to cease using the oxen yoke—at least, not yet. Instead, as an interim measure, the group has enlisted local artisans, who have designed a donkey harness that can be used in conjunction with the yokes to eliminate stress on the donkeys' necks. As funding becomes available, TAPO plans to help locals modify their carts, gradually eliminating the need to use an oxen yoke at all.

Getting people to adopt a new technology always takes education, and Kahama is no exception. TAPO is educating donkey owners through workshops on basic donkey care, including essential husbandry, basic medical care, shelter requirements, harnessing, and humane training.

The district’s educational department also recently selected 48 primary school teachers from various regions to take part in the workshops. Because children are frequently involved in caring for the family’s animals, it’s imperative that education be started in primary school so that they’ll learn compassionate, effective ownership at an early age, and can go on to spread those values as they grow up.

A better future

In the brief time I was in Kahama, I saw positive signs at the workshops, where a donkey owner said he had learned a lot and appreciated the materials he’d been given on care and appropriate rest. I noticed, too, that workshop attendees touched and talked to their donkeys more often after seeing TAPO’s leaders demonstrate these behaviors. And on the street, we saw two children using the new harness-and-cart system with their own donkey. They had attended a previous workshop and, while nervous about the attention, seemed shyly proud about the praise we gave them.

Through the efforts of groups like TAPO, we can make a lasting impact on the care of a group of animals who, although they can be found in most every country around the world, tend to be commonly overlooked in animal welfare efforts.

With your support, we can continue to help animals directly and through the work of our partner organizations like TAPO.

This story was excerpted from Animal Sheltering magazine. Read the full version here [PDF]. To subscribe, visit animalsheltering.org.

Kelly Coladarci, a program manager for HSI, is a certified veterinary technician with a degree in wildlife biology and management.

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