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Hungry, thirsty, cramped and suffering because of extreme temperatures – these are the conditions experienced by Australian cattle on live export ships, as recorded by government observers and laid bare in a new study published in an international journal this week.

The study, which has been published in the journal Animals, scrutinises 37 summaries from government  observers on board ships carrying live cattle from Australia to China, involving more than 147,000 Australian cattle over an 18-month period.

RSPCA Australia Senior Scientific Officer and coauthor of the study, Dr Di Evans, said that the animal welfare risks with the live export trade were well-known but that this data demonstrated the recurrent nature and significance of these problems.

“This study identified ten key risk factors for the animals on board these ships,” said Dr Evans. “These are hunger, thirst, exposure to extreme temperatures, poor pen conditions, health issues, absence of veterinarians, rough seas, poor ship infrastructure, mechanical breakdown and mismanagement at discharge.”

“What this study makes clear is that this isn’t just one or two bad operators – these animal welfare risks are inherent in the live export trade. For example, a staggering 38 percent of voyages had food shortages or limited access to food, including more than one in 10 voyages having to ration food or exhausting the supply. Cattle on some voyages did not receive adequate food with some cattle being trampled in a desperate attempt to access food.

“30 out of 37 independent observers’ summaries identified poor pen conditions or insufficient space, and all 37 of them identified health issues such as painful eye disease, pneumonia or lameness.

“It’s also worrying to see just how many of these ships had infrastructure or mechanical issues, which have a direct impact on animal welfare – such as contributing to extreme heat or poorly secured food or water troughs.

“Over 40 percent of voyages reported water supply issues, often due to insecure water troughs, leaking hoses or the water system breaking down. As ships pass through the hot tropics, it is essential that cattle have full access to clean drinking water.

“Nearly a third of voyages had both food and water issues, which is completely unacceptable. These are inhumane conditions to be knowingly putting animals through and unless we see significant change, and ultimately an end to live export altogether, hundreds of thousands more Australian animals are going to suffer.”

Dr Evans said that the study also flagged serious issues with the transparency of data available from these ships.

“The Federal Government does not release full reports from its observers on board these ships, instead only publishing a summary – and these summaries omit most of the photographs and all of the videos. We have expressed these concerns before and had to use freedom of information requests to get more detail, and what was revealed then was very worrying.

“Also, from 49 live cattle export voyages from Australia to China during the period of the study, only 37 had independent observers on board at all. Australians deserve to know exactly what is happening on board live export ships, especially when there are ongoing and preventable animal welfare risks.”

More information on why the RSPCA is opposed to the live export trade is available here.


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