Thousands of livestock marooned on ship after rerouting to avoid Houthi violence

The sheep and cattle carrier, bound for Israel from Western Australia, has been at sea for a month


Australia exports half a million animals each year, a fifth of which go to Israel. The live animal export industry has been seen as cruel and inhumane by both regional and international animal rights groups. (Photo by ADEK BERRY / AFP) (Photo by ADEK BERRY/AFP via Getty Images)

Thousands of sheep and cattle have been marooned on a ship off the coast of Australia after the boat was rerouted by Houthi violence in the Red Sea, much to the dismay of animal rights groups.

The Bahijah livestock carrier set sail to Israel from Fremantle Port in Western Australia with 15,000 sheep and 2,500 cattle on 5 January. Nine days later, the ship rerouted to avoid the Bab al-Mandab strait where Iran-backed Houthi rebels have launched numerous attacks on commercial ships in what the group has called retaliation for Israel’s war in Gaza.

On 20 January, the Australian agriculture and fisheries department said the ship had been ordered to return to Australia “due to the worsening security situation” in the Red Sea.

However, Australian officials said on Thursday that while the Bahijah had been allowed to dock at the Fremantle Port, no livestock would be unloaded due to Australia’s strict biosecurity regulations.

As a result, the animals have been contained on the ship for nearly a month. According to Reuters, the latest proposed plan for resuming the export to Israel includes sailing around Africa and approaching via the Mediterranean in a voyage that would take roughly another month in harsh conditions.

Meanwhile off the coast of Western Australia, where the animals have been held in the Bahijah for over a week, a heat wave has seen temperatures rising to 40 degrees, creating dangerous conditions for the livestock.

Addressing concerns over the welfare of the animals on board the ship, Adam Fennessy, Secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry said on Friday: “There should be no doubt that Australia’s biosecurity and the health and welfare of the livestock onboard are our highest priorities.

“After standing offshore yesterday evening and replacing the animal bedding, the vessel has returned to port and is berthed in Fremantle.

“The exporter’s registered veterinarian remains on board and continues to report daily on the health and welfare of the livestock.”

Of the nearly half a million animals exported each year by Australia, almost a fifth are sent to Israel. Animal rights activists in both countries have voiced concern for the livestock on board the Bahijah, and a local parliament member in Australia told Reuters the voyage shows that the live animal export trade is "rotten to the core."

Two Israeli animal rights groups have filed legal proceedings against the Veterinary Services within the Ministry of Agriculture in Israel, seeking a ruling in relation to an import permit for the livestock on board the Bahijah, which would prevent them from being imported into Israel.

Erez Wohl, a Legal Advocate for one of the animal rights groups called Let Animals Live, said in a statement: "These animals have suffered enough because of poor decisions made. To subject these animals to the further stress of weeks at sea enroute to Israel would equate to sanctioned cruelty."

"These sheep and cattle have endured extreme heat and been living in their own waste in crowded conditions on a rolling ship, all because commercial interests have been placed before their welfare.

"We have taken this unprecedented legal action as it is a moral imperative that this import permit not be granted to prevent Israel being a party to grievous animal cruelty."

While the Australian government has pledged to phase out live sheep exports, it has not yet made moves to do so.

Australia’s Chief Veterinary Officer Dr. Beth Cookson confirmed that on Wednesday two veterinarians engaged by the Agriculture and Fisheries Department inspected the livestock onboard the ship and found “no significant animal health or welfare issues.”

“That provides additional confidence that the livestock are in good condition and have appropriate care and supervision,” said Dr. Cookson.

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