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Could Australia’s Decision on MV Bahijah Set a New Standard for Livestock Welfare?

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The MV Bahijah, a vessel carrying 16,000 sheep and cattle, has safely returned to the port of Perth after being stranded off the coast of Australia. The ship had faced extreme heat and uncertainty in the Red Sea, where Houthi fighters in Yemen targeted ships, leading to weeks of apprehension for the animals on board.

The MV Bahijah’s journey, which began on January 5 from Fremantle in Perth, was bound for Israel. However, the vessel had to abandon its course due to the escalating attacks by the Houthi militia, a group backed by Iran. The fighters, in response to Israel’s actions in Gaza, targeted ships linked to Israel, creating a perilous situation for vessels navigating the Red Sea.

The Australian government, cognizant of the exceptional circumstances at play, instructed the ship to return to Australia on January 20, citing biosecurity risks. The incident underscores the broader consequences of the ongoing attacks on ships in the region, prompting global shipping firms to take lengthy diversions around southern Africa, causing disruptions to international supply chains.

Australia, known for its stringent biosecurity rules, faced a critical decision regarding the fate of the 16,000 animals on board. The government’s agriculture department stated on Thursday that veterinarians had examined the livestock and found no “significant health, welfare, or environmental” concerns. However, it remains uncertain whether the animals will be permitted to disembark from the vessel.

The biosecurity controls in Australia, considered among the strictest globally, aim to protect the country from invasive pests and diseases. The government assured that the health and welfare of the livestock are paramount, emphasizing that any potential offloading of animals would adhere to rigorous protocols.

The international response to the Houthi attacks has been robust, with the US and the UK launching strikes against Houthi targets in Yemen. The rationale behind these actions is to safeguard global commerce, a sentiment echoed by other countries, including Australia, that have thrown their support behind the initiative.

As the MV Bahijah docks in Perth, the livestock faces an uncertain fate. Approximately 14,000 sheep and 2,000 cattle have endured challenging conditions, with temperatures soaring close to 40°C (104°F). The ship’s manager has refrained from commenting on the plight of the animals, leaving their destiny hanging in the balance.

This incident has reignited the debate on the welfare of animals transported on vessels for overseas trade. The conditions faced by the livestock on the Bahijah highlight the vulnerabilities of animals caught in geopolitical conflicts and the challenges faced by the live export industry.

Australia, in response to such incidents, has previously pledged to ban the live export of animals. Last April, New Zealand took a similar stance after a tragic shipwreck incident led to the drowning of thousands of cows. The Australian government’s commitment to phasing out the export of live sheep further underscores the need for a reevaluation of practices within the live export industry.

The docking of MV Bahijah in Perth marks the end of a perilous journey, but questions persist about the broader implications for global trade, diplomatic relations, and the ethical treatment of animals in international commerce.

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