In northern China, donkey meat is a prized protein—and it’s often served in burger form.
Burger, though, is an approximate translation, albeit one that adorns storefronts across the region.
They’re more like sandwiches, but they serve a similar purpose as burgers anywhere: they’re a guilty pleasure and something to be craved after having one too many beers.
They’re served late, and there’s even a beloved saying: “In heaven, there is dragon meat, but on earth, there is donkey meat.”
In terms of taste, the meat is surprisingly mild and not very gamey. Like horses, donkeys produce gelatin in their hooves, which is mixed into the meat to provide extra richness.
(Read more: A (very) comprehensive guide to Cantonese barbecue)
But China’s love of donkey meat—and donkey hide, which is used in traditional Chinese medicine—is wreaking havoc across the world.
With its own donkey population falling because of high demand, China has resorted to importing them from abroad, threatening donkey populations as far as Africa.
Origins of donkey meat
There are records of donkey consumption in China dating back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), when it was a common food in northern China’s Hebei Province.
But there are competing origin stories, according to Qian Chang, who was born and raised in Hebei and now leads food tours in Beijing.
One story that Qian likes to tell visitors involves rival trading groups in the city of Baoding, Hebei, during the Ming Dynasty, when donkeys were mainly used for transporting goods.
Particularly nasty competition led one group to kill—and later, roast—the donkeys of another.
Regardless of whether the story is true, there is evidence that donkeys were mainly used for trade, and their popularity as food might have come after the Beijing-Hankou railroad was completed in the early 20th century, rendering donkeys irrelevant for transport.
(Read more: One province consumes half the rabbit meat in China)
Compounding that, Qian says, was the government enforcing laws against the slaughter of cows and horses, which were still important in agriculture, but not donkeys, which became seen as a more affordable version of horse meat.
Rise of the donkey burger
Today, two cities in Hebei—Hejian and Baoding—claim to be the original home of the donkey burger.
Hejian is so proud of its signature dish that it hosts an annual festival in its honor.
But Baoding, better known for once having the dubious title of “China’s most polluted city,” also claims to have invented the burger.
(Read more: The only legit way to eat lamb leg is on the street)
In reality, both cities are right. They’re just home to different styles.
Whereas the Hejian burger features cold meat and rectangular bread, the Baoding version includes warm meat served in a circular shaobing 烧饼, a baked flatbread found across China.
Although northern China’s love for donkey meat may have originated from an excess of animals no longer needed for trade, today, there is a shortage of donkeys in China.
Rapid urbanization means fewer farmers are raising the animal, and as a result, the donkey population is quickly shrinking—from an estimated 11 million in 1990 to 3 million in 2017, the BBC reported, citing Chinese government data.
To meet demand, China has turned to several African countries, where donkeys are still used for agriculture and transport.
Slaughterhouses in Africa buy donkeys from farmers—or people who have stolen donkeys from farmers—and then cut and freeze the meat for export.
The voracious demand is putting local donkey populations at risk of being decimated. The problem is so dire that a conservationist told the BBC that it was “the biggest crisis donkeys have ever faced.”
(Read more: ‘Snake masters’ are becoming extinct in Hong Kong)
Donkeys are notoriously slow to reproduce. Many farmers don’t even allow their donkeys to mate because pregnancies would slow them down when they’re needed for work.
Worldwide, there are only an estimated 44 million donkeys left, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, and about 4 million are needed each year to meet Chinese demand, according to a 2016 report by China’s state-run media.
Donkey burgers, though, aren’t entirely to blame. In recent years, there has been a surge in demand for ejiao 阿胶, a traditional Chinese medicine that uses donkey hide as an ingredient.
The medicine is taken to treat a wide range of ailments, including blood loss, dizziness, and insomnia. Many women believe it prevents infertility and aids menstruation. Its popularity has boosted the price of ejiao to hundreds of dollars per pound.
(Read more: Behind the craze for China’s ‘magic mushroom’)
Demand for ejiao complements demand for donkey meat, and as a result, several countries in Africa, including Senegal, Niger, and Tanzania, have banned the export of donkeys to China.
But the profit to be made has proven irresistible for many other countries. Earlier this year, Pakistan lifted a three-year-old ban on donkey exports.
With one of the largest donkey populations in the world, the Middle Eastern country now expects to earn millions from exporting donkeys, according to a report by the Gulf News in Dubai.