GABORONE, BOTSWANA - A Chinese man alleged to be involved in Botswana's illegal donkey skin trade has been arrested after being found with 500 animals suffering in dire conditions, police said Thursday.
The animals were so cruelly treated by the 24-year-old suspect that they had to be culled.
Botswana last month moved to crack down on the booming trade in donkey skins that has been fuelled by demand from China.
Many thousands of donkeys in African countries have been slaughtered in recent years and their skins, meat and hooves sold to China for use in traditional medicine.
The skins and hooves are boiled to make gelatin, which is used to treat health problems ranging from sexual dysfunction to anaemia and is also valued as an anti-ageing treatment.
"The suspect is being investigated for cruelty to animals," police spokesman Witness Bosija said, adding he was arrested late last month outside Botswana's second city of Francistown.
"The donkeys were found in a very bad state of health, therefore government officials reached a decision to cull the animals to prevent them from suffering more," said Bosija.
Police said the donkeys were bought from across the country, allegedly to be skinned, and that the man was expected to appear in court soon.
Botswana is the sixth African country to impose restrictions on donkey exports, following Niger, Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso and Gambia.
Zimbabwe turned down an application to build a donkey slaughterhouse, while Ethiopia has closed its only functioning donkey abattoir.
But the trade has flourished due to soaring prices.
Farmers in Botswana have been urged to closely monitor their donkeys to prevent thefts as well as to report suspicious buyers of live animals.
Animal rights groups say the docile beasts of burden are often bludgeoned to death before being skinned in backyards and clandestine slaughterhouses.
The industry is said to be worth billions of dollars worldwide.
Donkey numbers in China nearly halved from 11 million in the 1990s to six million in 2013, according to official statistics.
The gelatin, known in China as ejiao, is dissolved into hot beverages, or mixed with nuts and seeds.
Donkey meat, consumed in parts of China, is believed to be more nutritious than beef and is served in burgers and stews.