The recently reported deaths of more than 4,000 sheep traveling from Australia to Qatar and the UAE have prompted protests from animal rights groups, and a reassessment of export standards in Australia.
The animals, who died of heat exhaustion last September, were part of a consignment of more than 75,000 sheep shipped to the region as live export from the Australian cities of Adelaide and Fremantle.
The deaths were disclosed in a report published last week by the Australian Department of Agriculture (ADA), which has promised to monitor future shipments and put protective measures in place if necessary.
In light of what happened, animal rights groups are making a renewed push for Australia to ban the live export of cattle, sheep and other animals.
Australia is a very important export partner for Qatar, which gets some two-thirds of its meat from the country. Qatar is the fourth largest importer of Australian meat in the Middle East and North Africa region, and its appetite is only growing.
According to the Gulf Times, Qatar’s meat imports from Australia have jumped 40 percent jump over the last five years, due to the country’s population explosion. Furthermore, Australian mutton is subsidized by Qatar’s government, making it an appealing choice for consumers.
In its report, the ADA details the chain of events that led to the deaths of the sheep on board the ship Bader III last September.
It states that two consignments of sheep were loaded onto the ship, one from Adelaide, of whom just over 7 percent died, and from Fremantle, of whom 3 percent died, making an overall voyage mortality rate of 5.53 percent.
The government’s stated “reportable level” (or, accepted limit) for mortality is 2 percent.
The report shows that the sheep were exposed to temperatures above the heat stress threshold on days 20 to 21, when the vessel was heading toward Doha, and on days 31 to 32, when it was unloading in Jebel Ali in the UAE.
It added that during “extreme weather conditions” on the afternoon of day 21, some temperatures were reported to be as high as 38C (100F). For adult merino sheep, heat stress occurs at 30.6C (87F), and the mortality limit (beyond which the sheep are expected to die) is 35.5C (96F).
The ship’s veterinarian wrote in his end of voyage report that 97 percent of the mortalities were due to heat stress.
“In these temperatures, the ship would have turned into an oven, with these thousands of individual sheep literally baking alive. Even on a normal summer’s day in the Middle East, the temperature can hover over 40C, placing animals at high risk and significantly compromising their welfare.”
Senator for the Green party, Lee Rhiannon, told the paper that she will re-introduce a bill to seek a ban on live animal exports, questioning “why a disaster of such a magnitude has been kept a secret for the past five months.”
Meanwhile, Australia’s agriculture minister, Barnaby Joyce, described the incident as “distressing,” but reaffirmed his support for live exports, with his spokesman telling the Guardian that it was “an important, ongoing and legal trade for Australian producers.”
And the exporter, Livestock Shipping Services (LSS), issued a statement saying that the company was “focused on animal welfare” and that it was “deeply disappointed” when its expected standards were not met.
On Qatar’s side, Widam (formerly known as Mawashi), the company that oversees livestock imports in Qatar, did not respond to requests for comment today.
In the conclusion of the report into the incident on board Bader III, the ADA points out that a subsequent consignment on the same ship two months later suffered from no similar problems.
The department had mandated that the sheep on board this ship should be given 10 percent more space than the legal minimums, it adds.
The report continues:
“The department will continue to monitor, through daily and end of voyage reports, heat related mortality to determine if additional measures are required to manage the risk of mortality due to heat stress. This may include requiring additional space to be provided to livestock exported on vessels that record significant heat stress mortalities.”
This is not the first time that Australians have debated the morality of live exports. In 2011, the country’s government voted not to ban the practice following a lengthy debate about welfare standards on-board ships, and in the animals’ destination countries.
This debate was fueled by several highly publicized incidents, including an incident in which a ship suffering engine failure that was bound for Qatar was stranded, prompting concerns about thousands of sheep onboard.
While it’s not unusual for animals to die on long voyages, Qatar residents were shocked in December 2012 when 33 deceased and decaying sheep were found washed up on the shores of Qatar’s northern beaches.
It’s believed the sheep were presumably thrown off a cargo ship after dying and then carried to the beaches by the tide.