Because communities own donkeys for work rather than meat, the animals most important characteristic is its adaptability, and it is difficult to agree on what else best suits a donkey for work. Where castration is practised, it is not aimed at breeding characteristics at all, but at the behaviour of the actual animal castrated. The fact that donkeys in Africa are clearly very well adapted and seem to have changed so little in relation to the many different uses to which they have been put probably reflects this lack of breeding focus, but also the fact that there is a time window between the onset of sexual potency and the maturity of donkeys sexual aggression, allowing input to the gene pool.
Being a case study, the following article should not be taken as wholly scientifically based, as it is supported not by statistics, but rather by experience and observation, from working with rural communities in Zimbabwe, Zambia and South Africa, and also from work shopping with other animal traction specialists in the Animal Traction Network for Eastern and Southern Africa (ATNESA). Perhaps most importantly, I have myself reared and used donkeys on communal land in a remote part of Zimbabwe for many years.
University-based studies of the use and performance of donkeys have only recently begun, so results have not yet been meaningfully collated. What follows, therefore, should be considered more a series of reasoned arguments (some are based on research results) than an actual study.
The role of donkeys in the community
Donkeys, in this part of Africa, are different from all other animals held in rural communities (except cats and dogs) in the respect that they are not regarded primarily as meat. In some areas, such as Namibia (CHP, 1995) their value recently rose when they began to be sold for meat, and in other areas, such as the North West Province of South Africa (Jones and Hanekom, 1996) it is possible to come across communities that utilize donkey meat when the animal has become useless for work. However, most rural communities I have encountered regard the idea of eating the meat of donkeys with disgust.
Donkeys are therefore virtually unique in being seen as animals that have a work value only and, sad to say, this is reflected in their purchase price, it being a universal truth that work is a commodity of little monetary value.
However, what this means for donkeys is that, to attain any value at all, they need to reach maturity (three or four years of age) and thereafter live as long as possible, which, according to the records, can exceed 60 years. Against this must be set the fact that most owners of donkeys are at the lower end of the economic scale. They are smallholder farmers or small-scale transporters and have very little in the way of resources to spare on caring for their animals health and longevity, however good the return may be. Indeed, this is one of the factors accounting for the popularity of donkeys (Starkey, 1995).
Under the kind of adverse circumstances faced by most donkeys, they are not prolific breeders, and one mare could not be expected to produce more than 12 or so foals in her lifetime. Even so, it does not take much calculation to conclude that, in a tough animal with a good survival rate, unrestricted breeding could soon lead to serious overpopulation. Although I myself am always working with communities that perceive themselves as suffering from a shortage of donkeys, this is not necessarily the perception of governments. The North West Province is still reverberating from the shock it suffered when, in 1983, the Bophututswana Government undertook a donkey "culling" programme, more commonly characterized as a "massacre" (Starkey, 1995).
All the same, pressure on the land is great, and it cannot be supposed that donkeys should be left to breed freely, even if this is what actually happens. This is because rural communities (at least those sectors that own donkeys) do not, on the whole, perceive the need to restrict the numbers of donkeys any more than they see the need to restrict the numbers of cattle.
The role of castration
Therefore, when castration is carried out, it is not with the purpose of restricting numbers. So it is worth asking whether or not it has any role in the selection of desirable characteristics.
It is true that rural people often ask me what breeds of donkey exist (and of course my answer has to be: "Nothing distinctive in this part of Africa, whereas in Texas ..."). It is fairly clear that such a question arises from communities experience of extension work, which pays much attention, however mistakenly, to the breeds of cattle and sheep and even goats, but rarely gives any mind to donkeys. When I ask what sort of breed owners would choose to look for, they invariably become confused. Strong? But they know that donkeys are remarkably strong anyway - observation borne out by research (Prasad, Marovanidze and Nyathi, 1991). Big? But they feel that the present size of donkeys may be an advantage: a bigger animal may be less manageable, as cattle and horses are, and for those who backload donkeys, a higher back would be no advantage. Occasionally size is discussed, sometimes in the context of obtaining mules, but those who propose it are usually voted down, often on grounds of expense.
One could list other characteristics, but a little thought invariably leads to the perception that there are conflicting needs. Donkeys can perform and are expected to perform a wide variety of tasks, and a characteristic suitable for one task may be quite wrong for another. A calm temperament might be suitable for ploughing, but in transport situations an animal needs to have quick responses to danger - and of course to be able to distinguish danger from other sudden happenings.
In fact, the most valuable characteristic in donkeys, next to their survivability, and part of it, is their intelligence. This is something that humans do not even know how to breed into themselves!
Survivability, it would seem, is the characteristic most valued by the communities that use donkeys. The current popularity of the animal in this part of Africa can be attributed to the way in which donkeys survived the drought of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Communities did not overlook the fact that, while their cattle were dying, their donkeys were not, and this is still talked about.
The upshot of all this is that castration, when it is carried out (some owners are against it, but I have never met a woman who was), is done for reasons other than selection. In this field, I have direct experience: I acquired a donkey that was beautiful, intelligent, big and strong enough for me to ride him, and also a willing worker - all the qualities I wanted, although that was not the basis on which I acquired him. I already had two mares and, to avoid inbreeding, I was planning to castrate their existing male offspring and allow the incomer to father future progeny. But it was not to be. Like other equines, donkeys can be very aggressive when it comes to sex. They fight each other, and can fight to the death. I have a video from a course I gave in Zambia, which dwells in some detail on the results of similar behaviour that occurred when two groups of donkeys were put together - a total mincing of the victim donkeys haunches. That particular victim and mine were the lucky ones; some get their necks broken. But if the victim survives, the persecution will continue, and it seemingly has little to do with the concurrence of oestrus in the mares. There are only two ways to stop it: isolation or castration of the aggressor.
In the economic group to which most donkey owners belong, isolation is simply not an option. Grazing land is communal, and the cost of fencing prohibitive. Even if there are no other males in the herd, the aggressor will go looking for victims. For the sake of peace and maintaining good relations with neighbours, not to speak of safety, an owner must castrate such a donkey sooner or later.
The next question is: what proportion of male donkeys is like this? It seems that nobody really knows (a common refrain concerning the behaviour of donkeys), except that it may have something to do with herd size and domination. Yet the dominant individual in a herd is often female, and there is no agreement yet as to what the "natural" herd size really is.
Also to be considered is the difficulty and expense of castration. Although not recommended by veterinarians, the easiest and cheapest method is to use a burdizzo, which is used most often. But a suitable one still has to be found and hired or borrowed, along with someone brave enough and knowledgeable enough to use it. It simply does not make economic sense to use it for one animal only: once a castrator is acquired, an owner naturally castrates as many stallions as can be mustered.
Owners rarely have to worry about the continuing reproduction of their mares. Where grazing land is communal, stallions simply arrive when a mare is on heat. The necessary scents and sounds apparently carry a long way. In a community situation, reserving a stallion intact for its breeding characteristics is therefore something of a futile exercise: his progeny will not necessarily be those of his owners mares.
Castration is then purely and simply a management strategy on the part of the owners that is aimed at dealing with the behaviour and workability of the animal on which it is applied, and it is not directed at the quality of succeeding generations.
The effect of castration
It could be thought that the main effect of this pattern of castration, apart from the prevention of inbreeding, would be the reduction of sexual aggression in male donkeys. If this is the case, then I shudder to think about the levels of aggression there must have been when castration was not practised. However, there is good reason to believe that, whatever the effect of castration, it is minimal.
This may be a result of the indiscriminate nature of community castration practices, but also owes something to the time-lapse between when a donkey becomes sexually active and his semen viable, and when he starts to be aggressive towards other males. According to the literature, a donkey can be potent at ten months, or reaches puberty at 1.5 years (Fielding and Krause, 1998), presumably when its testicles have descended, which in my experience can be between 18 and 30 months after birth. But experience also shows that aggression only begins at around three or four years of age, four being the age at which most would agree that a donkey finally reaches adulthood, and when sexual aggression becomes most noticeable. In fact, three years is the age at which castration is now recommended by donkey professionals, which means that there is probably a year or two in a geldings life during which he can contribute his genes to the pool.
Without doubt, this is one of the factors accounting for the adaptation of donkeys to the poorest of environments - the quality for which, it could be said, they are most valued. Other factors would be the relatively little care that donkeys get and the relatively free movement in which they engage - with or without their owners collaboration - ensuring plentiful outbreeding and testing of any adaptability that is attained.
Changes in donkeys through time
The pedigree of donkeys is long. We know that they were working for humans some 7 000 years ago at the time of the Pharaohs; they drew the war chariots of Mesopotamia. The bloodlines come down to us from Nubia and Somalia as well as much of Asia. As far as can be perceived, wild donkeys occupied, north of the equator, in dry desert regions, much the same niche as zebras do here in the south. Once donkeys became domesticated, their use as transport animals along the ancient trade routes resulted in a gene spread uncommon for any animal beside the human. The donkeys we see today, however, are predominantly northeast African in ancestry (Camac, 1989).
But the variability today is larger. In the United States, "miniatures" are bred as pets, while "mammoths" are bred to sire mules, with something like a metre of difference in height between them, and there is every variety of colour and marking. In Africa, south of the Sahara, there is more uniformity and clearly the context is a greater need for adaptation to the environment.
The poster provided for this workshop, which gives illustrations of the wild relatives of the domestic donkey, and of the domestic donkey (Equus asinus) as it was some 6 000 years ago, gives some idea of the amount of change that has occurred over the millennia. Nobody can really claim that it has been much.
As a community animal, with a variety of tasks to do, the donkey has characteristics that do not seem to have been greatly affected by the only strategy that has been used to interfere with its breeding: castration. This may be because the use of castration is not actually aimed at breeding at all, and is merely a management practice that has apparently had little effect.
Considering how well donkeys seem to be adapted to poor conditions, and the fact that they are used more by poor communities than by others, there seems little reason to change the practice.
Camac, R.O. 1989. Introduction and origins of the donkey. In E.D. Svendsen, ed. The professional handbook of the donkey (2nd edn), pp. 1-8. Sidmouth, UK, The Donkey Sanctuary.
CHP. 1995. End of year report. Otjiwarongo, Namibia, Clay House Project.
Fielding, D. & Krause, P. 1998. Donkeys. London, Macmillan.
Jones, P. & Hanekom, D. 1996. Donkey use in achieving food security, an interim report for Northwest Province. Pretoria, Agricultural Research Council, Institute for Agricultural Engineering.
Prasad, V.L., Marovanidze, K. & Nyathi, P. 1991. The use of donkeys as draught animals relative to bovines in the communal farming sector of Zimbabwe. In D. Fielding & R.A. Pearson, eds. Donkeys, mules and horses in tropical agricultural development, pp. 231-239. Edinburgh, University.
Starkey, P. 1995. The donkey in South Africa: myths and misconceptions. In P. Starkey, ed. Animal traction in South Africa: empowering rural communities, pp. 139-151. Halfway House, South Africa, Development Bank of Southern Africa.