Abubakar Ya'u digs sand from vast, sweeping dunes and loads heavy hessian sacks of the fine, golden bounty onto the backs of donkeys which carry it to market. Rampant demand for the beasts of burden in China, where their skins are believed to have medicinal properties, has caused prices to soar -- creating a dilemma for Ya'u and his fellow excavators in Kano, northern Nigeria. "Two years ago we were buying donkeys strong enough for our trade for between 15,000 and 18,000 naira (between $42 and $50) -- but now to get a good donkey you will require 70,000 to 75,000," he said, wearing dusty sandals, jeans and a T-shirt.
"The reason for this is the huge purchase of donkeys which are transported to the south where their meat is consumed and their skin exported," he explained.
"To us, it is a calamity because as a sand digger if you lose your donkey, you can hardly raise the money to replace it." Fellow sand digger Abdurrahman Garba, who has been in the business for 30 years, added that export bans by some of Nigeria's neighbours had made the situation worse. "Now that Niger has banned donkey exports to save its stock, the Chinese have turned to our stock -- depleting them at an alarming rate," said Garba, 40.
Botswana, Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso and Gambia all impose restrictions on the trade, while Zimbabwean authorities blocked a private donkey slaughterhouse under construction and Ethiopia closed its only functioning abattoir. From Delta state on Nigeria's southern coast, hides are shipped to China where they are stewed to render the coveted gelatin known as "Ejiao" in Chinese. The buyers, who believe that soluble Ejiao gum is an effective remedy for troubles ranging from colds to aging, comprise a market thought to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars every year. "The medicine is popularly referred to as a blood tonic and helps to fortify the body, particularly in conditions like anaemia," said Oliver Emekpor, a butcher handling donkey meat at the Ughelli market.