[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
DEBRE ZEIT, 20 July (IRIN) - In Ethiopia, the donkey is man's best friend. Without this four-legged creature the country's rural-based economy would largely grind to a halt.
Donkeys provide the transport that brings food and water to millions in the remotest parts of the vast country, where roads and communications do not exist.
However, Ethiopia's donkeys are overburdened and overworked through increased poverty and overpopulation, veterinarians told IRIN.
"The attitude people have towards donkeys is very bad," Prof Feseha Gebreab, an animal expert, said. "Despite its importance this is an animal with a very poor image."
Ethiopia boasts the world's second largest donkey population; some five million of them picking their way through the rocky, barren highlands bearing their heavy load. Only China with 12 million donkeys has more.
However, over the last 20 years, as Ethiopia's population has almost doubled from 40 to 71 million people, the health of the country's donkeys has deteriorated due to all the extra work.
"We are seeing more and more sick donkeys," said Feseha, a former dean of the veterinary faculty in Debre Zeit, some 60 km east of the capital, Addis Ababa. "Their workload has increased and with it, so too have their injuries."
Feseha works as a consultant at the Donkey Sanctuary established 11 years ago. It is one of a handful of hospitals in the world dedicated exclusively to donkeys.
In a country where only half the population can afford or access medical treatment, a hi-tech surgery, ambulance service and gleaming hospital for donkeys may seem excessive - that is, until the donkeys arrive with their owners.
"My donkey is my life," 51-year-old Lema Raya, a farmer, said.
His wife Shewaye concurs: "He carries the water for me," she said. The daily backbreaking task is usually left to women and children, and often involves walking up to 10 km to fetch water to cook and clean with.
"Without him my family would have nothing to drink," she added. "He carries our food to and from the market and we rent him to other families to earn extra money."
Families in rural Ethiopia, where 85 percent of the population eke out a living, are generally seen as better off if they have a donkey. In a country where the average annual wage is just US $100, the two dollars-a-day earned by renting the animal is a fortune.
Although no study has been carried out on the impact donkeys have on the Ethiopian economy, more than half the country's GDP is from the agricultural sector, where donkeys are kings.
Farmers, according to Feseha, rank the animal as their most important.
Exceptionally hardy, the donkey's staggering pain threshold often means it will struggle on regardless.
In many countries, donkeys are no longer used as beasts of burden, and are more likely to be adopted as pets. In Ethiopia, however, their workload is reflected in their life expectancy - just nine short years compared to Europe or the US, where they live for around 35 years.
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