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Back in the saddle

A typical morning in Addis Ababa, as man, animal and machine compete in the scrummage of movement and counter movement that fills the main arteries from suburb to centre. Most striking to the visitor are the donkeys, trotting in single file in front of stick-waving attendants, laden with sacks, crates, water pots, and enormous bundles of leafy eucalyptus that dwarf their carriers. Whether in town or countryside, donkeys have a central place in Ethiopian life: ferrying goods through narrow urban alleyways inaccessible by car or truck; fetching fuel and water from forests and boreholes; linking buyers and sellers in farms and markets. In a country where resources are tightly stretched, donkeys, which are able to survive on very poor quality grazing and can tolerate longer periods without water than most other livestock, would seem the ideal transport solution. However in terms of their status, Ethiopia's donkeys seem to be a victim of their own success. Able to survive on little they tend to be given little, whether in the form of food, veterinary care or respect. This has a huge effect on their working output, cutting their working lives from a potential 15 or 20 years to just a third of that or less. A poorly treated donkey is lucky to reach its fifth birthday.

Improving the management of donkeys has been at the heart of a project funded by the UK Department for International Development, whose broader aim is to find ways of giving peri-urban producers better access to urban markets. With over 6 million donkeys in Ethiopia, one of the highest donkey-to-people ratios in the world, making better use of them and keeping them working for longer is a natural starting point. Staff from the Ethiopian Agricultural Extension Organisation, which is implementing the project in partnership with the Edinburgh-based Centre for Tropical Veterinary Medicine, have focussed on two main causes of donkey decline, one internal, the other external. The internal problem is intestinal; infestation rates for parasites such as strongyles, stomach worms and flukes are extremely high in Ethiopian donkeys, causing weakness and general ill-health, and reducing an animal's ability to fight infection from other sources. One such source is back sores, the external problem. Open sores mostly result from rough-and-ready packing methods; few donkeys are given any padding to protect them from their loads, and farmers often use cheap straps made from nylon cord or car tyre, Back pads help to soften the loadwhich inflict further cuts and abrasions. Once sores have formed an animal may quickly become unable to carry any kind of load, and this usually leads to abandonment and death.

Softening the load
Developing back pads and saddles made from locally available materials is one output from the project so far. The new pads and saddles vary in design according to the load to be carried, but follow similar basic principles. Placed between donkey and load, absorbent sisal sacking material is used for their lower surface, and jute sacking above. The sisal surface, placed directly onto the donkey's back, absorbs sweat and reduces rubbing; the upper jute surface on which the load is placed, is hard-wearing. The pads, which have been made by the International Donkey Protection Trust, are stuffed with soft tef straw. New designs of padded harness straps made from strips of strong cotton cloth are also being tested, and project staff have encouraged participating farmers to protect their animals' health in other ways. A back pack helps ease the load of clay water potsSupplementing daily grazing with salt lick blocks and concentrate feeds may be an ambitious target for farmers who are used to just leaving their animals to find what they can, but using crop by-products, such as tef straw, as an extra source of feed is an easy and inexpensive option. Farmers have also been recommended to provide their animals with shelter; housing donkeys with other livestock has the added benefit of providing an effectively loud alarm system against hyenas and other intruders.

Internal protection
Improving the availability and use of anti-helminthic drugs, which kill intestinal parasites, has been another key output. These drugs are widely perceived as expensive and unnecessary, so one of the challenges facing the project has been to persuade farmers that twice yearly treatment for worms is cost effective. Geremew Tesfaye, a farmer living near the town of Holetta, is a recent convert to the value of worming. Once a week he uses his donkey to carry clay water pots, made by his family, to sell either in Holetta or in Addis Ababa some 30km to the east. Using the new design of back pad, his donkey is able to carry twelve pots, which he sells for around five birr (US$0.60) each. Five birr also happens to be the cost of one worming treatment, so for the price of one pot he should be able to keep his donkey relatively worm-free for up to six months.

At a policy level, research findings from the project have been shared with national livestock policy-makers through a series of workshops. It is hoped that capitalising on Ethiopia's abundant donkey population will produce significant benefits for both animals and owners.

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1st July 2003