Getting to know the mountain mules of Nepal

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Gorkha/ Kathmandu – Although their numbers are decreasing, much of the transportation in the mountains of Nepal is still carried out by mules. In order to find out what their welfare conditions look like after the earthquake, Animal Nepal, with the support of Donkey Sanctuary UK (DSUK), has started rapid Assessment of Mountain Mules. Besides a lack of medical support, the main welfare problems identified are a lack of appropriate feed, water, shelter, vaccination programmes and a poor understanding of animal welfare. As a result mountain mules suffer from various medical conditions including preventable wounds, lameness, colic, injuries and communicable diseases.

As part of the programme, a team of veterinarian and a technician visited Gorkha district to collect information on the condition of mules and their owners. 17 mules’ owners were interviewed and requested to fill out a questionnaire. Not all the mules could be covered in the survey as more than half are stuck in places where the routes collapsed by landslides caused by the April and May earthquakes. Over half of the mules were sent to places as far as Samagaun, Chaikampar, Machi Khola, Tsum Valley and even till Tibet before the beginning of our survey. A total of 1300 animals are being used for transportation in the region.

At present only two technicians working with the local Department of Livestock Services Office of Gorkha provide medical care to the mules of Gorkha. As a result over 85% of the mule owners are forced to treat their animals by themselves. Our survey team came across many cases of overgrown hoofs. Besides, colic, hoof abases and anuria were the most common health problems found in the mules.

Among surveyed mule owners, the normal working hours for each mule in average is about 7-8 hours and the mules get as much as 4 days off in a month. More than 80% of mule owners do not possess alternative for sick animals which means that these mules are made to work over loaded even when they get sick and injured.

Working mules are mostly fed maize and wheat twice times a day. The feeds are packed in a small sack and tied on to the mule’s neck covering their mouth, which allows them to eat while they rest.

The saddles for mules are made out of reused sacks and ropes which is not considered a proper saddle for the mules to carry such a heavy loads. Also more than 25% of mules have beating wounds on their hip area. The herders use a long stick and even throw stone over the animals to make them walk.

Mountains occupy over 64% of the total land of Nepal where mules are the primary source of transportation of people and goods. Due to the topography and poor road conditions, mountain mules are the primary source of transportation and hence the life line of remote local people of Gorkha. Our primary research found out that over 12 villages in Gorkha do not have proper road connectivity. Mule transportation hence becomes a much wanted job for the villagers, especially for young male students. In reality, mule owners and herders spend days and nights looking after the animals in poor living conditions where their earnings are barely sufficient to sustain their families.

It is estimated that only 3–5% of the country’s vet services reach animal owners because there is limited technical expertise and it is generally only available in cities or major districts. The main welfare problems seen during the survey included lack of appropriate feed, water, shelter, vaccination programmes and poor understanding of animal welfare, preventable wounds, lameness, colic, injuries and diseases are routine issues.

The full report on the Mountain Mule Assessment of Gorkha can be downloaded here.

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