Donkeys and Mules

Donkeys and mules are both equines like horses, ponies and zebras. (Although the nilgai is horse-like it is the largest species of antelope and not an equine.)

The Donkey Sanctuary’s (UK) 2024 report reveals that worldwide at least 5.9 million donkeys are slaughtered every year to meet the escalating demand for Ejiao, a traditional Chinese medicine, made using donkey skins.

The National Research Centre on Equines (NRCE) established at Hisar under the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) undertakes research on equine health and production. India possesses 1.17 million equines the majority comprising of donkeys, mules and ponies that provide livelihood to persons living in arid, semi-arid and hilly regions, especially the foot hills of Himalayas. A small percentage is utilised in the Army, Police and Border Security Force (BSF), and so-called sports like horse racing.

The 20th Livestock Census released in 2019 found India’s equine population had significantly decreased: donkeys were 50.24% and mules 8.83%, whereas horses & ponies 40.93%.

Only 1,20,000 donkeys were left in India, the population having fallen by 62%. In fact, the donkey population has shown a declining trend over the last 4 Livestock Censuses, i.e. 17th (2003), 18th (2007), 19th (2012) and 20th (2019). And it is probably continuing to fall despite laws in place.

Donkey breeds found in India are primarily used to carry heavy loads. They are Kachchhi, Halari, Sindhi and Spiti.

The Indian Penal Code, 1860, Section 429 does not allow slaughter of mules or donkeys:
Mischief by killing or maiming cattle, etc. of any value or any animal or the value of fifty rupees – Whoever commits mischief by killing, poisoning, maiming or rendering useless, any elephant, camel, horse, mule, buffalo, bull, cow or ox, whatever may be the value thereof, or any other animal of the value of fifty rupees or upwards, shall be punished with imprisonment or either description for a term which may extend to five years, or with fine, or with both.

Donkeys and mules are not listed under the Food Safety and Standards Act as animals that are allowed to be slaughtered and their flesh eaten in India as listed under the Compendium Food Regulations.

Donkeys and mules, alongside oxen, horses and ponies, even yaks, are classified as beasts of burden used for heavy labour. An ass is another name for a donkey. They are always put to work in harsh conditions. No wonder there exist charities and sanctuaries in many countries exclusively for their welfare.

Donkey Meat

The decline of the donkey population started years ago with donkey skins being smuggled out to China from which medicinal gelatine called Ejiao is made. India exports donkey skins both legally and illegally. (China breeds the largest number of mules in the world, followed by Mexico.)

The demand for skins has obviously resulted in lots of donkey flesh being available and so a growing donkey meat and blood market immerged alongside the existing demand for donkey milk. Few know that donkey meat is called poopy. It is brazenly sold in carts parked on roadsides and are rarely apprehended for flouting laws.

In October 2022 as much as 400 kgs of donkey meat was seized in Hyderabad and 7 persons were arrested. Within a month, 2 men were arrested (while 5 others escaped) and 20 kgs of donkey meat was seized at Guntur. In Prakasam, Bapatia, Krishna, West Godavari and Guntur districts of Andhra Pradesh people are known to consume donkey meat imagining it to be an aphrodisiac and that it can heal particular ailments. These so-called health and medicinal benefits have been touted in order to create a demand for donkey meat so it brings in additional income to what is earned from donkey skins.

The state’s donkey population declined 53% in 7 years from 10,164 in 2012 to 4,678 in 2019 due to illegal slaughter. So much so, by 2022 donkeys were brought from Rajasthan to meet the created demand.

The Medaram Jatara a tribal festival held once in 2 years in Telangana attracts approximately 10 million devotees and different types of meat, including donkey meat is consumed by them. In January-February 2024 donkeys being transported from Maharashtra for slaughter in Telangana were seized at Phaltan, Satara.


A hinny is produced by mating a female donkey (jenny) and a male horse (stallion); whereas, a mule is from a jack (male donkey) and a mare (female horse). Both hinnies and mules are sterile and are bred with the sole aim of extracting hard work out them, but more often than not the animals turn out to be stubborn and are therefore mercilessly whipped to work hard and continuously for long hours. The idioms “stubborn as a mule” and “work like a mule” or “donkey work” mean exactly what they say. However, mules are considered less stubborn and more intelligent than donkeys. Both have exceptional memories and can form close and loving bonds with humans.

Brick kilns use mules, donkeys and horses to transport wet and dry bricks, either by cart or pack, both within the brick kilns and from the kilns to other locations for use in the construction industry. In Lucknow they are used to transport clay. And, Gujarat’s dairy suppliers use them on rough terrain to carry milk.

However, their demand to carry heavy loads fell after trollies became common. For example, there was a time when every family in Gadhapuri owned 2 to 4 donkeys but now they work as manual labourers and the place in the narrow by lanes of Shahdara, New Delhi, is known as Kabir Nagar.

The Kalandar community began breeding and selling mules after their dancing bears were taken away from them.

In Kerala many of the 600 or so donkeys made to trek up the hill from the base camp at Pamba to the Sabarimala temple and down 4 kms carrying mainly jaggery, rice and foodstuffs got exhausted and were left to fend for themselves. However, in November 2010 just before the season began, the Travancore Devaswom Board which is in charge of the temple’s administration pledged to the Kerala High Court that henceforth it would ensure that the donkeys were properly inspected and only if found fit would be allowed to go up, numbered, given medical treatment, and not abandoned by contractors and owners. Then in 2018 a politician said “At the temple town, it is the donkeys that do most of the work. Till date they have not gone on any protest. After their hard work, they take rest near the Pamba river. These donkeys have more grace than the tantri at Sabarimala.”

In 2018 the Supreme Court ruled that the use of mules to ferry pilgrims from the Katra base to the Vaishno Devi shrine in Jammu & Kashmir should be phased out and the mule owners be rehabilitated. The bench had expressed concern over the mule droppings lying en route. The National Green Tribunal had earlier said that a new path should be constructed to the shrine exclusively meant for pedestrians and battery-operated cars and no mules (donkeys, ponies or horses) should be allowed on this new route. However, rates for ponies and palanquins are advertised on websites.

In June 2023 a video showing a mule used to go up to Kedarnath being forced to smoke weed caused a big outcry on social media. Luckily the men were arrested. Another video showed how donkeys were grossly abused en route. About 8,000 animals are authorised to carry pilgrims and goods uphill to the shrine. BWC informed the Chief Minister, Uttarakhand that the Supreme Court had in 2018 ruled that the use of mules to ferry pilgrims from Katra base to the Vaishno Devi shrine in J&K should be phased out and the owners be rehabilitated. Similarly, we requested the CM to phase out the use of mules, donkeys and horses on the Char Dham Yatra route. It was not enough that guest houses, restaurants and eateries located at the holy places of Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri and Yamunotri serve pure veg food and that the consumption of non-veg and alcohol is strictly prohibited. Respect for animals cannot be restricted to only what is eaten. A reply received from the Uttarakhand Animal Welfare Board only stated that henceforth cruelty would be stopped.


In November 2023 officials from International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), the Department of Animal Husbandry and Dairying, Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), National Academy of Agricultural Sciences (NAAS) and others met to discuss the revival of donkeys and mules in India. Unfortunately they decided to exploit them for their “nutritious” milk which is sold informally for Rs 2000/- to Rs 5,000/- a litre. The ICAR-NRCE (National Research Centre on Equines, Hisar, Haryana) is trying to improve milk yield of Halari donkeys (reared by the Maldhari community of Gujarat) which is about 200 ml to 1.5 litres a day. They have also applied to the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) for permission to allow consumption of donkey milk products. Meanwhile, start-ups (who are purchasing donkey milk at exorbitant prices) are selling products like donkey milk soaps and cosmetics... donkey rearing is heading to be the next big animal exploitation story. Under the pretext of a donkey conservation park for stray and abandoned animals, the local community will be encouraged to rear them for milk and to promote tourism.


Luckily the practice of the Defence sending retired horses and mules to vaccine manufacturing centres where they were tortured to produce anti-venom serum was stopped years ago in 2001. This used to happen despite having named a mess lounge Pedongi after a bay mule that pulled loads from 1962-92 in the Indian Army’s Transport corps. In fact, mules played an important role for India during wars (like Chinese aggression of 1962 and Kargil 1999) although soon after Independence the Indian Army had unsuccessfully tried to breed mules from the wild asses of Saurashtra.

Army dogs, horses, camels, yaks and mules used by paramilitary services now all retire with benefits (just like humans of their corps) and no euthanasia or auction is conducted for worn-out cases.

This came about in 2016 after BWC wrote to the President of India who is the Commander-in-Chief of the Defence Forces of India, the Prime Minister, the Defence Minister and Chief of Army Staff, saying that it was morally, ethically and culturally wrong to kill Army’s dogs, horses and mules when old and unable to work. In response the Defence Ministry assured BWC that instructions had been given for “immediate cessation of further destruction of old and worn out animals”.

In January 2024 BWC was happy to know that the Indian Army planned to deploy 500 drones, and in some areas helicopters, to replace mules. They would deliver medicines and essential items to remote Border Observation Posts. Therefore, we again wrote to the President of India who is the Commander-in-Chief of the Defence Forces of India, the Prime Minister, the Defence Ministers and Chief of Army Staff, saying that we were happy to know that the Army was rapidly cutting down on the use of mules, but we were worried about their future. We requested that they continue not to euthanize or auction the mules, horses, yaks and dogs used by the Army but retire them with benefits just like humans. We enclosed an article entitled “Donkey Meat” from Compassionate Friend (spring 2023) and said that we were sure they would not like the hardworking mules that had served the nation to land up being killed for the illegal donkey/mule meat, blood and skin trades. Furthermore, we requested them to make arrangements for their rehabilitation in a special retirement shelter.

BWC was pleased to receive a reply from the Remount Veterinary Services to say that they appreciated our concerns and that the animals are kept at their Geriatric Care and Rehabilitation Centres.

An Ass Ad

In August 2020, BWC sent an email complaint to the ASCI (Advertising Standards Council of India) with copies to the company and producers of the upGrad commercial about their TV advertisement featuring a donkey which insulted humans and degraded animals.

BWC pointed out that the concept to promote the idea of “lick ass” using a live donkey or ass that showed 3 humans licking it in an office was perverse and strongly objectionable. It violated the ASCI code that made it offensive to the public because it was not within the bounds of generally accepted standards of public decency and propriety.

The other points raised by BWC in its objections were that the Election Commission of India had directed all parties to refrain from using live animals and calling their opponents by animal names such as gadha. Furthermore, the 2019 Livestock Census stated that only 1.20 lakh donkeys were left in India therefore disrespecting these hard-working animals by portraying a donkey in an abusive advertisement should not be allowed – 70% of them worked in the brick kiln industry and the rest worked for the defence carrying supplies to places over 19,000 feet, as well as in pilgrimage spots.

BWC was not the only complainant, nevertheless 2 days after our complaint the advertisement was not seen as often or in full on TV. We hoped it would be also removed from all other platforms like YouTube but that did not happen, and it continued to be aired on different TV channels.

Meanwhile, the ASCI did not uphold our complaint. BWC suspects that they overlooked seeing the first part of the advertisement in which the poor donkey had been subjected to stress and was licked by 3 persons. Surprisingly they focused only on the second half of the advertisement in which the employee says in Hindi “career mé aagé badné ké liyé muzhé chatné ki nahi... sirf specialization ki zaroorat hai...” and found it humorous (sic).

Cultural References

There are many cultural references to donkeys and mules – in myth, folklore, religion, language and literature.

The donkey was a symbol of the Egyptian sun god Ra.

In Hinduism, a donkey is the vahana for Goddess Kalaratri, as well as for Goddess Sheetala.

An ass (and ox) is seen alongside Jesus in the manger. The donkey is said to have aided Mary and Joseph reach Bethlehem. Traditionally, entering the city on a donkey symbolises arrival in peace.

The patron saint of animals, St Francis of Assisi on his deathbed thanked his donkey for carrying and assisting him throughout his life and his donkey wept.

The worship of donkeys is called Onolatry.

The donkey is the symbol of the Democratic Party of the United States.

Page last updated on 27/03/24