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New project highlights damaging impact of plastic pollution on land animals

Revolution Plastics Institute

5 min read Partner content

In one of the first studies of its kind, scientists are investigating the effects of plastic pollution on donkeys in Kenya

In one of the first studies of its kind, scientists from the University of Portsmouth and The Donkey Sanctuary are investigating the effects of plastic pollution on land-based animals in Kenya, specifically the donkeys and livestock that play a pivotal role in the lives of local communities. 

Whilst extensive research has previously focused on the impact of plastic pollution in marine environments, its repercussions on land animals remain an underexplored frontier. This study represents a major step towards unravelling the critical issue of plastic pollution on our terrestrial ecosystems, something that has far-reaching consequences, especially for animals like livestock, which often enter the food chain, and working animals such as donkeys, which are lifelines for some of the world’s most vulnerable communities. 

Recent investigations carried out by the University researchers and the Flipflopi Project at a Lamu abattoir yielded a shocking discovery – a slaughtered cow with 35kg of plastic waste in its stomach.  This alarming find raised concerns about donkeys in the region ingesting substantial amounts of plastic as well. 

The problem of plastic pollution is escalating and we need to understand its impact on the animals that are integral to communities in the Global South.

– Dr Leanne Proops, Project Lead and Associate Professor in Animal Behaviour and Welfare at the University of Portsmouth

Dr Leanne Proops, Project Lead and Associate Professor in Animal Behaviour and Welfare at the University of Portsmouth, said: “The problem of plastic pollution is escalating and we need to understand its impact on the animals that are integral to communities in the Global South.”

The project, a collaboration between the University of Portsmouth and international animal welfare charity, The Donkey Sanctuary, will examine the various facets of the plastic pollution issue. Researchers have started to analyse the levels of plastic ingested by donkeys to fully understand the scale of the problem. The initiative is taking place on Lamu Island in Kenya, a UNESCO World Heritage site, where subsistence farming and reliance on working animals are prevalent. 

The team have also begun to study the foraging behaviours of donkeys and cattle in Lamu.  Early results highlight the severity of the issue, revealing that free roaming domestic animals, including donkeys, are profoundly affected by plastic ingestion due to their behaviour and biology. 

Working closely with local communities and organisations to design and deliver the project helps to ensure that the research empowers and benefits the local community.

– Dr Cressida Bowyer, Deputy Director of the Revolution Plastics research initiative at the University.

With the help of the Lamu-based The Flipflopi Project, a large-scale survey has been carried out to investigate community knowledge, attitudes and behaviours with regard to donkey and livestock welfare and plastic pollution. The next phase of the project involves conducting focus group meetings with local livestock owners, vets and residents to understand the challenges and concerns regarding donkey welfare.  

Dr Emily Haddy, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Portsmouth is heading out to Lamu this week to lead the community focus groups. She said: “From previous discussions with the community, we know there is growing concern about the links between plastic pollution, ecosystem health, animal welfare and human wellbeing. 

“However, the picture is complex, livestock owners often cannot afford to feed their animals and through necessity let their animals loose to graze. We hope that by holding these community focus groups we can understand more about the issues for everyone involved.”

From previous discussions with the community, we know there is growing concern about the links between plastic pollution, ecosystem health, animal welfare and human wellbeing. 

– Dr Emily Haddy, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Portsmouth.

The focus groups will seek to find out more about:

  • How donkeys are perceived and used on Lamu
  • The current welfare state of donkeys on Lamu
  • Future strategies to improve donkey welfare on Lamu

The impact of livestock ingesting plastics can range from loss of body condition and disease to blockages in the digestive tract, resulting in colic, starvation and death. Meanwhile, microplastics infiltrate the soil and plants animals consume.

The Donkey Sanctuary’s Lamu base runs a programme that strives to address the underlying causes of poor welfare in Lamu, part of which includes a clinic for chronic and acute donkey health needs. Dr Obadiah Sing’Oei, Lamu Clinic Team Lead and Lead Vet, said: “In our clinic we see firsthand the devastating impact plastic pollution is having on donkeys, as we encounter many cases of colic and blockages caused by ingesting plastics. It’s incredibly distressing for the donkeys and their owners too. We are pleased that, with the help of researchers from Portsmouth, we will be able to highlight this worrying issue and support the development of community-based solutions to the problem.”

Using what is learnt from the focus groups with the community, an integral part of the project will be collaborating with the Lamu Arts and Theatre Alliance to develop arts-based initiatives that raise awareness of the risk to donkey welfare in Lamu. A resulting dramatic performance, scheduled for the end of November at the Lamu Cultural Festival will serve as an educational tool, highlighting the issue of plastic pollution on livestock. The performance will provide a platform for the community to engage with the project and help co-develop solutions. The annual Lamu Cultural Festival is a three-day cultural extravaganza supported by both locals and tourists. 

The University of Portsmouth has a proven track record of using creative methods to bring about community behavioural change. 

Dr Cressida Bowyer, Project Collaborator and Deputy Director of the Revolution Plastics research initiative at the University, is an expert in the use of creative methods; she said: “Arts-based initiatives, visual art, storytelling and performance in particular, have wide general appeal, breaking down barriers, and often reaching a large number of sometimes difficult to reach communities. Using such socially and culturally relevant approaches can stimulate debate and create lasting change. Working closely with local communities and organisations to design and deliver the project helps to ensure that the research empowers and benefits the local community.”

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