The busiest border crossing in southern Africa is also home to 50,000 donkeys – it’s not ideal.
Beit Bridge, home to the Venda people, sits on the Zimbabwe/South African border. There are three major roads that converge on the crossing – the N1 Highway from Johannesburg; the Zimbabwean A6 from the Victoria Falls; and the R1 from Harare. At peak times claustrophobic queues have been known to sprawl for miles.
The area as a whole is semi-arid and poor with donkeys providing essential and flexible transport for the locals. Add a Scotch cart to the four-hoofed engines and they turn into taxis; lorries; rental vehicles; water carriers; wood-collectors; school-buses; ambulances … they are invaluable – the stoic heart of Beit Bridge.
They are also one of its biggest headaches. Managing the donkeys alongside the tons of freight and thousands of travellers is a challenge for everyone.
Meryl Harrison, a well-respected authority on animal welfare in Zimbabwe and a trustee of Veterinarians for Animal Welfare Zimbabwe UK (VAWZ UK), has worked on the frontline of animal welfare in Zimbabwe for years. Although she has now retired and lives abroad she remains acutely aware of the plight of these particular donkeys. She knows how much work they do and how many strands of support are needed for them and their owners, and to ensure the safe passage of the vehicles on the main roads.
The drivers, either of passengers or freight, on these roads have often travelled long distances in loaded vehicles and mind-sapping heat. Inevitably some crash into the dusty, tar-grey donkeys who roam in search of food and water. The consequences can be tragic for everyone not least the donkeys. Those donkeys that survive collision are likely to be permanently damaged, and then abandoned due to cost and the end of their usefulness. Dehydration and distress will follow and, as few Zimbabweans eat donkey, the brutal truth is that there will often be no end to their misery.
“It is all about education, education, education. Everyone has to be involved – the council, the police, the local vet.” Meryl Harrison is frustrated and anxious about the situation. “The work to find answers was begun a year ago and now seems to have stalled. I don’t care who deals with this but somebody needs to get on with it.”
The solutions being searched for in Beit Bridge have to be simple, sustainable and quickly effective. One place to start might be the roads. Fencing is expensive and prone to vandalism … reflective or fluorescent donkeys perhaps? Reflective tape has been used on the back of Zimbabwe’s Scotch carts for many years but it still doesn’t solve the problem of the wandering donkey.
Some charities are already looking into possibilities. SPANA (Society for the Protection of Animals Abroad) has been trialing reflective ear tags on donkeys in Botswana – it seems to be going well there although the Zimbabwean tendency to cut, and re-cut, the donkeys’ ears to mark ownership might make these tags a little awkward in Beit Bridge.
Meryl’s own wish list is substantial. “My vision for a long time, has been to see a donkey clinic set up at Beit Bridge. A generous, long-standing donor has already given funding for an off-road motorbike so a worker can reach the donkeys in remote villages, and an animal welfare group in Australia has also promised to fund a water trough once we’ve got the measurements.”
In the meanwhile, as Meryl tries to kick-start action on behalf of the donkeys, the Beitbridge road-users will have to keep their wits sharp. Grey, unmarked Equus asinus are still at large and the recent arrival of lions can’t have made the odds any better.