Greece’s donkeys treading a path to extinction
It is one of the most recognized images of Greece: a donkey carrying an elderly villager along narrow, winding streets or dusty country lanes. But it could soon be a snapshot of a bygone era.
Greece’s donkeys are disappearing fast. If current trends continue, experts warn, they will have all but vanished within the next two decades.
“The population of donkeys in Greece has been falling dramatically in the past few years,” said Giorgios Arsenos, assistant professor at Aristotle University’s School of Veterinary Medicine in Thessaloniki. In the last 50 years, the number of donkeys in the country has plummeted 96%, falling from nearly half a million in the 1950s to just over 18,000 in 1996, he said.
A number of those remaining died during last summer’s devastating fires that swept the country’s southern Peloponnese -- where about 40% of Greece’s donkeys live. By the end of the year, there will be fewer than 16,000, Arsenos estimates. “If this reduction continues, then within just 10 to 15 years the donkey population will fall below 1,000 animals.”
Elsewhere, the donkey population -- about 40 million globally -- is growing, said researcher Paul Starkey, attending an international conference on the role of donkeys and mules in the Mediterranean. But in the northern Mediterranean countries, there is a massive reduction.
Used for centuries to transport people and goods and to plow fields, the donkey has fallen victim to modernization. “Where you can replace donkeys with motorized transport . . . then people will do that, because it’s more convenient,” Starkey said.
Almost everywhere in Greece, cars, trucks, tractors and motorcycles have taken over. Everywhere, that is, except for Hydra.
For on this picturesque island, a short hydrofoil trip from Greece’s sprawling, congested capital, the donkey -- and the mule -- keep the town running. With motorized vehicles barred from the island -- no cars, no bikes, no trucks -- the only form of land transport is equine.
The main town sweeps up from the port to the hills above, stately homes rising in a series of winding, narrow lanes and steps that only pedestrians and animals can negotiate. Whether it is tourists looking for a way to get their luggage to their hotel or residents moving house, the only way to transport anything is on the back of an animal. Donkeys even carry out much of the island’s garbage.
“Here we have only mules and donkeys as our land transportation. This is a remarkable fact within Europe,” said Ed Emery, who organized the weekend donkey conference on Hydra to examine the reasons behind the drop in population and what can be done to stop it.
At the edge of the dock in the town’s harbor, donkeys and mules stand patiently in a row, their owners and handlers waiting for the boats to sail in. As visitors and locals stream off the latest passenger ship, workers load building materials onto the animals’ backs. Door frames and long planks of wood are strapped onto the traditional wooden saddles; bags of cement are secured by rope; furniture is carefully balanced on either side.
“They transport everything, from sewing pins to electrical refrigerators -- anything you can imagine,” said Yiannis, a mule owner waiting at the port for someone to hire his animals -- tourists looking for a brief ride through the town or residents who need help transporting goods. He would give only his first name.
“I keep them because I’ve had them since I was a child, and I love them,” he says of his two mules, 15 and 20 years old. He charges about 10 euros for a tourist ride, and up to four times that much for removals.
Hydra has about 1,200 donkeys and mules, the island’s mayor says -- nearly 10% of the country’s total population. Only the Town Hall has motorized transport: one garbage truck and a small pickup used sparingly.
“The donkey and the mule in Hydra have been woven into the fabric of our way of life,” Mayor Kostas Anastopoulos said. “Without these sympathetic animals, I believe it would be impossible for us to live. All transportation, from people to the materials needed to build a house, are done with these animals.”
But Hydra is an isolated case in a country where progress and modernization have encroached on the traditional way of life. In the rest of the country, the future of the donkey appears bleak.
“This is a worrying phenomenon,” said Arsenos, the veterinary professor at the conference. “We are trying to see . . . what can be done regarding the use of these animals, to what extent their use can change so they do not constitute pitiful remnants of a culture that is being lost.”
Delegates came up with various suggestions: changing the animals’ traditional role from one of beasts of burden to recreation and companionship and setting up a national protection program to ensure that the genetics of rare breeds are maintained.
“They are a cultural heritage that we should safeguard for the next generation,” Arsenos said.