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Is donkey milk the next big fad?

With some breeds on the verge of extinction, the government is exploring whether donkey milk can be a nutritional substitute that also helps in the conservation effort

The Halari breed was on the brink of extinction according to a 2019 livestock survey.
The Halari breed was on the brink of extinction according to a 2019 livestock survey.

Vashram Toyta, who lives in Jamnagar, Gujarat, has 50 donkeys of the Halari breed. These quiet, docile creatures with lush white coats and sturdy builds, native to Saurashtra, are perfect for transporting goods or pulling passenger-carts. They are not the kind of animals you would find at a dairy, though. Not so far at least.

In August, the National Research Centre on Equines (NRCE), a state-funded institute, bought a few Halari donkeys from Gujarat’s Mehsana district for research. News reports from the time suggest the NRCE plans to set up a donkey dairy at its headquarters in Hisar, Haryana. The donkey milk, these reports said, could be sold at 7,000 a litre.

Toyta was astonished, for this would mean a litre of milk was worth half of what he had been selling the animals for.

Toyta’s family has been rearing donkeys for generations. Neither he nor the members of his nomadic tribal community, Bharwad, had thought much of donkey milk so far. It tasted sweetish, almost like coconut water. But it wasn’t as rich and creamy as cow or goat milk, so daily use was ruled out. Every now and then, they would have a spoonful as a remedy for a bad bout of cough. “But selling it?” he says, “I didn’t even dream of it.”

Tantalizing though the prospect may be, the prospect of a state-backed donkey dairy is still a long way off. The NRCE started exploring the use of Halari donkey milk last year after the 2019 livestock census found their numbers had fallen from 320,000 in 2012 to 120,000. Numbering just a little over 1,000, Gujarat’s Halari breed was nearly on the verge of extinction, the census found. In October, the Union ministry of fisheries, animal husbandry and dairying asked the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) to find a way to promote donkey milk in a bid to help the conservation effort.

Yash Pal, NRCE’s acting director, says the project is in its infancy. “For now, we will be studying the milk profile in a scientific manner,” he says. “It’s possible that the reporters added the bits about the dairy and milk prices to make things more interesting.”

Three breeds are registered with the National Bureau of Animal Genetic Resources: Spiti, Halari and Kachchhi (many indigenous breeds haven’t been officially recognized yet). Milk yield is low; it’s said an average lactating donkey gives only around a litre a day.

A breeder in Haryana milking a donkey.
A breeder in Haryana milking a donkey. (Photo: Ramesh Bhatti)

But the milk is nourishing. A study published in the Asian Journal Of Dairy And Food Research in 2019 found that Halari donkey milk had more antioxidants and vitamin C than other milch animals like buffalo and goat.

So far, there have only been scattered reports of its consumption in the country. Two separate reports in The Hindu in Bengaluru and Chennai, in 2013 and 2014, respectively, referred to some residents flocking to dhobis—who used the animal to carry bundles of clothes—to get some “nutritious” donkey milk for their newborns. The prices differed—a few millilitres could be sold for 50-450—and the demand never really went beyond 10 people a day, the reports added.

In the past few years, entrepreneurs in some parts of the world have tried to tap the market potential of donkey milk. Their pitch: Donkey milk is low-fat, anti-allergic, and can be used as a substitute for human breast milk. A farm in Serbia took it a step further in 2012 and started selling donkey cheese, known as pule, as a culinary delicacy. A kilogram of this white, crumbly cheese sells for €1,000 (around 85,000 now). Tennis star Novak Djokovic has reportedly expressed interest in donkey milk for his chain of restaurants in Serbia In Peru and China, it’s occasionally used to treat diseases like asthma, bronchitis, diabetes, anabrosis, tuberculosis and gastric ulcer.

While there are no studies on whether, or how much, donkey milk actually helps in such conditions, it does find a mention in ayurveda. Dr Satya Dornala, who works at the New Delhi-based Swami Vivekananda Ayurvedic Panchkarma Hospital, says texts like Charaka Samhita and Sushruta Samhita speak of donkey milk’s benefits in lending “strength and stability” to the body and in treating neuro-development issues, especially among children. “The best milk, as per ayurveda, is cow milk. But it has its limitations: it can’t be consumed by diabetics due to its natural sweetness. Donkey milk can be.”

“Traditionally, donkeys have been used to transport goods and people,” says Ramesh Bhatti, programme director at Sahjeevan, a Bhuj-based NGO that has been working with Halari donkey breeders for several years. “But as people have started using vehicles for transport instead of donkeys, there’s no interest among breeders to raise the animals any more. But now there’s a lot of research to suggest the medicinal benefits of donkey milk. If one starts to use it as a dairy animal, it would boost the conservation effort as well.”

Pooja Kaul, founder of the startup Organiko, is one of the first entrepreneurs in India to tap this market. But she wanted the milk to develop cosmetics. Organiko manufactures luxury bath soaps made of donkey milk, priced at 499 a bar.

For Kaul, it was a logical progression; her master’s thesis centred on the socioeconomic situation of farmers and how donkey milk could help stem the decline in the animal’s numbers. “I started in 2018 with 10 farmers in Kolhapur,” she says. “Some of the owners I spoke to didn’t even know that their animals give milk. Others thought we were trying to source the milk for black magic.”

Eventually, Kaul managed to convince them. Now based in Delhi, she is partnering with donkey owners in Haryana. Today, she says, she gets 50-100 product inquiries a day. “Donkey milk is said to have anti-ageing properties. It’s an Egyptian beauty secret (Cleopatra, the queen of Egypt, was believed to bathe in donkey milk). We are all so bored using existing market products, we want to try new ones.”

Hitesh Rathi, founder of India’s first camel-milk products company Aadvik Foods, is also planning to enter the sector. “In recent years, there is more understanding among consumers about health, about what their body needs. The adulteration levels in cow and buffalo milk are too high. People are using injections and antibiotics or hormones to increase the yield. What you are getting is not milk from cow but product from machine.”

Rathi says his colleagues will soon be visiting the donkey farmers in Jamnagar. If they finalize a deal, he says he will source the milk and sell it in powdered form, mainly for medicinal use for young children or those who are lactose-intolerant. “Our main motivation is to be the first to launch it,” he says. “We don’t know its market potential but since we are planning to start off with only a limited quantity, we are willing to take the risk.”

How much is he banking on donkey milk becoming a dietary fad? “Up to an extent,” he says. “The same thing happened for camel milk when (reality TV star) Kim Kardashian promoted it.... Today, we have companies like Amul making camel milk chocolate too.” Donkey milk, too, might just be a celebrity endorsement away from becoming the next big thing.

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