Help for Ethiopia's beasts of burden.
By Mohammed Adow BBC News, Debre-Zeit, central Ethiopia.
Poor treatment is one of the main causes of illness among Ethiopia's donkeys. The donkey is a highly valued animal in Ethiopia. They provide the transport that brings food and water to millions of peasants in the remotest parts of Ethiopia, where there are no roads or communications. With an estimated five million donkeys, Ethiopia is believed to have the second largest donkey population in the world, after China, which has more than 12 million.
Because of poor treatment, Ethiopia's donkeys get sick frequently and to cater for the health of these vital animals, a hospital has been set up for them. The Donkey Sanctuary is in Debre-Zeit 45km (28 miles) east of the capital, Addis Ababa. Treatment and advice are free and the 11-year-old hospital's annual $60,000 (£33,000) budget is funded by its UK-based namesake, which also runs donkey hospitals in India, Kenya, Mexico, Spain.
Up to 100 donkeys gather daily at the facility to receive treatment for parasites, crippling sores and hyena bites. The animals I found at the hospital were weak and the stench coming from the wounds of some of them was sickening. The sanctuary is one of a handful of hospitals in the world exclusively for donkeys and the only place of its kind in Ethiopia. Apart from wards where the sick animals recuperate, there is an ambulance service and a theatre unit where complex surgery such as Caesareans are performed. The donkey is mentioned 80 times in the Bible - even Jesus rode a donkey
Prof Fisseha Gebreab - During my visit, a group of veterinaries castrated a donkey that had had one of its testicles bitten off by another animal. In a country where half the population cannot afford or do not have access to medical treatment, a sophisticated donkey clinic with its own ambulance service and theatre may seem excessive.
But not to the Ethiopian farmers who rely on these beasts of burden for their everyday livelihood. "My donkey is my life," said farmer Berhanu Gemechu, whom I met at the hospital.
"Without him my family cannot eat or drink. He carries our water and food. He is our provider, our car and our friend."
Ethiopia is a deeply religious nation. Professor Fisseha Gebreab, Ethiopia's leading donkey expert and the hospital's co-ordinator, makes good use of this faith to educate donkey owners.
Every morning, he delivers a well-rehearsed sermon to those gathered at the sanctuary. Donkeys play a vital role in Ethiopia's economy"The donkey is mentioned 80 times in the Bible," he says. "No other animal is mentioned in the Bible so much. Even Jesus rode a donkey."
His greatest quarrel with farmers is the treatment they mete out to the animals. According to the professor, the poor treatment of donkeys in Ethiopia is reflected in their life expectancy: just nine years here, compared to 35 in Europe or the US, where a donkey is more likely to be a pet than a labourer.
And there seems to be no respite in sight for Ethiopia's donkeys, at least not in the middle of the poverty that faces many of their owners. Millions of them pick their way through the rocky, barren highlands bearing their heavy loads. Given the size of their burden, any other animal would have collapsed. But the donkeys carry on working. They are the giants of the Ethiopian highlands.