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A woman shows a box of ejiao at a pharmacy in Qingdao, East China"s Shandong province in 2011. [Photo/IC]

Xinjiang port handles 8,000 animals in first quarter of year

The number of live donkeys being imported to the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region from Central Asia has soared in the past year to meet demand for ejiao, a traditional Chinese medicine made from boiled donkey hide.

Imports in the first quarter through the Irkeshtam Port - the only port in Xinjiang that handles live animals - more than doubled year-on-year to 8,000, according to data from customs authorities in Urumqi. The donkeys are mainly sold in Shandong province, which produces about 90 percent of all ejiao products in China.

The live donkey trade was worth 10.03 million yuan ($1.57 million) last year.

The gelatinous medicine is mainly used as a treatment for anemia and menopause-related ailments. However, an online post in February by a health service center under the former national health authority advised the public not to purchase ejiao, saying the traditional medicine is "not as nutritious as chicken eggs for the human body". It later apologized for "creating misunderstanding".

Irkeshtam Port began importing live donkeys from Kyrgyzstan in August 2016 and has handled more than 27,000 to date.

Since then, the number of companies importing live donkeys has increased from one to six, with more expected to join the trade this year. Companies involved in the live donkey trade need to have a Chinese quarantine permit.

The live donkeys arrive at the port in Xinjiang after a two-day journey through Kyrgyzstan. They are then kept in quarantine for 14 days on the Chinese side of the border. The donkeys" blood is tested when they pass through to port to make sure the animals are healthy.

Annual production of ejiao, a lucrative product, has totaled 5,000 metric tons in recent years, using 4 million donkey hides.

The high demand, coupled with a decline in China"s donkey population, has resulted in a marked rise in the number of skins being imported each year. The number of donkeys in China fell from 9.4 million in 1996 to 4.6 million in 2016, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.

The decline is partly the result of urbanization: Many farmers, who once used donkeys as work animals, migrated to cities. Also, traditional cultivation techniques are gradually being replaced by machines.

There are now only enough donkeys to meet half of China"s annual demand for ejiao. In response, producers have turned to overseas markets to secure the needed donkey hides.

Qin Yufeng, CEO of Dong"e Ejiao, the largest ejiao manufacturer in China, said about 40 percent of the donkey skins it uses are imported.

The General Administration of Customs announced in December that it would lower the tariff on imported donkey hides beginning on Jan 1, with the import tariff on entire hides of a certain weight cut from 5 percent to 2 percent.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates there are about 44 million donkeys worldwide, mainly in Asia, North Africa and South America.