6-12 December 2013 #684

Beasts of burden

A sanctuary in Badikhel provides a well-deserved retirement home for former brick kiln donkeys of Kathmandu
Sunir Pandey

BEFORE-AFTER: Donkeys across brick kilns in Kathmandu are made to work long hours under harrowing conditions and repeatedly abused by their handlers.
Every year as winter sets in Kathmandu, thousands of donkeys cross the Nepal India border into Nepalganj at night. Unchecked by the officers of Banke’s district veterinarian office, the donkeys are then hauled to the Valley in the back of cramped trucks, each truck is packed with up to 25 donkeys.

On their very first day at work in the brick kilns, the animals are beaten by their handlers. Thus starts the vicious cycle of abuse. For the next six months, they are overloaded, underfed, and made to work even when sick or pregnant. The ones who are severely ill are simply left to die. Once the season is over in May, the surviving donkeys return to the plains where their owners leave them unattended because they are no longer useful in the fields and provide no further earning.

Though labeled clumsy and stupid, donkeys are in fact strong, intelligent, and highly dependable work animals. And for the marginalised Kasgar ethnic group of Nepalganj, they are the biggest bread earners. A family gets up to Rs 15,000 in advance for each donkey it sends to the capital, but with half the animals being seriously injured, their debts pile up each year. If Kathmandu’s brick kilns stop hiring donkeys or they get relocated, the Kasgars will lose their sole source of income.

“Training the Kasgars in other life skills such as pottery and providing them with small loans so that they can diversify their livelihood are some alternatives to make the lives of both master and beast more bearable,” says Uttam Kafle of Animal Nepal.

Back in Kathmandu, Kafle’s organisation runs a 1.2 acre donkey sanctuary in Badikhel, Lalitpur, where it provides rehabilitation and a well-deserved retirement home for the beasts. Started in 2009, the shelter has rescued 70 animals so far and receives funding from France (Brigitte Bardot Foundation), Australia (Animal Aid Abroad), and the UK (The Donkey Sanctuary). But Kafle says it is very difficult to get locals involved in supporting the donkeys.

Lukki was 18 months old when was rescued with her mother from a brick kiln in Lalitpur. She was emaciated and badly bruised when she first arrived, but has made a complete recovery and is as friendly as a pet dog. Like Lukki, most of the other former work animals have regained full health and seem to be enjoying their time in the farm, free from exploitation.

Animal Nepal's donkey sanctuary in Lalitpur, opened in 2009, rehabilitates the animals and let’s them live out their remaining years free from exploitation
Come February, more will be brought to the sanctuary. To prevent over-crowding, Animal Nepal is looking for support to build a newer shelter for healthier donkeys. It also encourages individuals and organisations to adopt the donkeys as pets. Till now, half a dozen donkeys have been given to hotels under the condition that they be well-fed and provided regular medical checkups, just like any other pet.

“It is challenging to protect animals that carry the worst cultural connotations,” explains Kafle. “But letting them die at brick kilns is no way to treat a species so close to humans.

”Animal Nepal is also part of a network of social workers, environmentalists, child rights and animal rights advocates called BrickClean Network (BCN) that is promoting socially responsible brick making through a new certification system. Factories across the Valley are ranked based on 18 criteria including environment, child labour, workers’ conditions, and health and sanitation. By raising awareness on the exploitation that takes place in kilns, BCN hopes to encourage customers to choose cleaner and greener bricks to build their dream homes.

A horse in the process of recovery:

Sunir Pandey



Read also:

Earth, fire, and air, KUNDA DIXIT

Blood bricks, LUCIA DE VRIES

Braying for help, SUVAYU DEV PANT

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