Theft of equines ~ donkeys and horses ~ is an increasingly prevalent form of stock theft, although the reasons for the theft of donkeys and for the theft of horses are very different.

In the case of donkey theft, cases of which are now reaching epidemic proportions, the reason is largely to feed the insatiable demand for donkey skins in the Far East. In the Far East, like with rhino horn, donkey skin is used as a traditional medicine.

In rural South Africa, donkeys are stolen from their owners, who often rely on them for agricultural traction in their fields, and for transport, both as riding animals and pulling carts. Thus the economic and logistical effect of the theft of a donkey, or number of donkeys, from a subsistence farmer is acute.

The animals are taken to a secluded plot where they are killed and skinned, the skins being partially dried before being packed into containers. When enough skins have been collected the container is closed and sealed, and it enters the mainstream export shipping system for carriage by sea. Although the legwork of the theft, killing, skinning etc is done by locals, the trade is managed and controlled by networks of Chinese middlemen.

The reasons for horse theft, by contrast, are much broader.

Historically, horses were stolen from stables and farms, into areas in which they would be used for pulling coal carts. In the case of properties close to Lesotho and Swaziland, stolen horses invariable ended up being spirited over the borders.

While these two “trades” still exist they have been joined by a newer phenomenon, namely “bush racing”.

In recent decades a number of rudimentary tracts have been established throughout the country at which locals gather to race horses in much the same way that the formal racing industry holds events. The particular interest, as with formal racing, is in the betting that goes hand in hand with the races.

Although some tracks are recognised and fall into a form of regulatory framework, others are unregistered and unregulated and operate very much on a “no questions asked” basis, and around which stolen as well as legitimately acquired horses will be raced, with scant attention to health and safety or animal welfare.

Horse thieves are very ingenious when it comes to disguising their theft.

The look of the stolen animal can be very effectively altered by “painting over” identifying marks such as blazes and stars on the head, or white socks, or chestnut manes and tails, using nothing more expensive than used motor oil. It is not unknown for a grey to be completely coated in oil so that to the casual viewer it appears as a very dark bay.

More determined efforts will include removing shoes so that the imprint of the hooves in sand and soil is disguised, and even crude “cosmetic surgery” such as clipping manes and docking tails, to cutting the animals’ ears to alter their shape (particularly prevalent if the horse has easily identifiable nicks in its ears from past injuries.)

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