TORONTO -- Donkey populations are collapsing in many parts of the globe over demand for an ancient Chinese medicine, and a U.K.-based rescue organization is warning that is causing a crisis in the world’s most vulnerable communities that rely on the beasts of burden for survival.

Half the animal’s population could be wiped out in the next five years without immediate action, says a report by The Donkey Sanctuary. Localized extinctions are already happening.

According to the report, the number of donkeys has dropped by 76 per cent in China since 1992. And since 2007, they have fallen 53 per cent in Kyrgyzstan, 37 per cent in Botswana and 28 per cent in Brazil.

Mike Baker, CEO of The Donkey Sanctuary in Sidmouth, U.K., says a traditional Chinese medicine called ejiao is made using gelatin from donkey hides.

“It’s been around for many, many years, but with the increasing wealth in China it’s been marketed now to the middle classes on a mass scale and that has seen demand go through the roof,” Baker told CTV’s Your Morning Friday.

The Donkey Sanctuary’s report, Under the Skin, finds that as many as 4.8 million hides are needed every year to meet demand for ejiao, which is used as a treatment for insomnia, headaches, colds, anemia, reproductive problems and other ailments.

China once had the world’s largest donkey population, but is now turning to traders elsewhere in Asia, in Africa, and in South America for hides. Wild donkey herds are being wiped out and even working donkeys are being stolen. Many donkey owners in cities or rural areas simple can’t afford to replace them.

According to Donkey Sanctuary research, the cost of buying a donkey in Egypt has soared from about $30 CAD to $300.

A collapse in the donkey population would be devastating for half a billion people in some of the the world’s poorest communities who rely on them for survival, to plant crops, to get back and forth to school, and as a vital source of income, particularly for women.

“You forget sometimes when you’re out here in the West where they’re seen more as a pet that these are working animals,” said Baker. “They bring water into communities. They bring fire wood into communities. The local farmers who depend on getting their goods to market, it could be 10 to 20 kilometres away, they have to have a donkey to get it there or they can’t survive.”

In cities, they are used on construction projects, and are often the sole means of transportation.

The Donkey Sanctuary has documented appalling animal abuse and cruelty in the skin trade (as many as 20 per cent of the animals die en route to slaughter), along with biosecurity risks in terms of the transmission of anthrax and equine flu.

The group is pushing for legislation that would outlaw the donkey trade. Baker says 18 countries have taken action, including the Nigerian parliament that passed laws two weeks ago. It also wants the Chinese government to suspend the importation of donkeys and their products until they are proven to be free of disease, humane, and sustainable.

The ultimate solution, says Baker, is to eliminate demand for the donkey hides by finding alternatives, including growing donkey collagen cells in labs.

“That would bring a safe, cheap supply.”