PAPER (Albania) AFP - On a small farm south of Tirana, donkeys happily munch on hay while customers flock to scoop up bottles of their milk - a niche product winning fans who believe in its health benefits.
Touted as rich in vitamins and as a boost for the immune system, the high-priced milk has been flying off the shelves during the coronavirus pandemic - a time when many in Albania are looking for an extra health kick.
The demand for donkey milk is rising sharply alongside virus infections, says Mr Elton Kikia, 37, manager of the small farm in the village of Paper, where around a dozen of the small, knobbly-kneed animals romp around a green pasture.
The high demand is good news for the donkeys, whose comfortable lifestyle on the farm is a welcome respite from their traditional roles as beasts of burden.
Typically enlisted to carry heavy loads and pull carts through Albania's mountainous terrain, donkeys are frequently subject to mistreatment in the form of beatings, overwork or saddle sores.
"It is a very delicate animal, which needs tenderness and love to produce its milk," says Mr Kikia.
Two years ago, he left his job as a journalist to take over the family farm, which is only one of two in Albania to raise donkeys for their milk.
At €50 (S$81) a litre, the price of donkey milk is exorbitant in a country where the average wage barely reaches €400 a month. But fears around Covid-19 have set off a flurry of interest.
While no one is branding the milk as a cure for the virus, aficionados are convinced its nutritional profile - which is close to human milk - helps strengthen the body's natural defences.
Ms Klea Ymeri, a student in agro-environmental engineering, recently travelled to Paper to buy two 250ml bottles to help her parents recover from Covid-19.
"On top of the medicines they are taking, donkey's milk could be a good natural remedy for the respiratory system," she says.
The family also uses some of the milk to make soaps, masks and other beauty products.
The farm now has four pregnant donkeys and four milk-producing mothers, each with a calf.
With a maximum production of three litres a day, "we can't meet the demand", says Mr Kikia, who plans to expand his herd to 100 donkeys.
But that is no easy task in Albania, where the donkey population is on the decline.
Waves of emigration from villages to cities, plus the use of machines in agriculture, has shrunk the number of donkeys and breeders across the Balkan state.
Milk production is thus a way of "protecting" the species, say the farmers, whose animals still bear the scars of their difficult past lives. "They are cared for and rehabilitated, including psychologically," says Mr Riza Kikia, 71, Elton's father.
He adds that Geni, for example, is a white female donkey who arrived with a wounded ear and a scar-streaked back. "She was weak, sad, she didn't want to stay with the others. Now she plays, she eats well and she makes good milk."
The donkeys also draw local children from the village, who come to ride, feed and pet the animals.
"This bond between the donkeys and the children is a (form of) therapy in itself," says Mr Kikia. "It is a psychological remedy that has magical effects, both on the behaviour of the children and on that of the animals."