Australia has ruled out taking back a shipload of 57,000 live sheep that has been stranded for weeks in the Middle East after being rejected by Saudi Arabia, and said it was looking for other countries to take the animals.
The sheep left Australia on Aug. 5 but were rejected by Saudi Arabia three weeks later on the grounds that six percent had scabby mouth, above an agreed level of five percent, although Australia says only 0.35 percent had the low-grade disease.
Since then the Saudi importer who owns the sheep has been trying to unload the sheep, offering them for free, aided by the Australian government, and ignoring calls from animal groups for their immediate slaughter.
Animal rights groups say that at least 3,500 of the sheep have died in searing 40?Celsius heat but Australian industry group LiveCorp says the death toll would remain unknown until the sheep were unloaded.
The Dutch owner of the ship Cormo Express, Vroon B.V., said in a statement that one option was for the sheep to be returned to Australia.
"With a 16-day voyage having turned into six weeks, time has run out and a solution must now be found to ensure the safe discharge of the sheep into suitable facilities," Vroon said in a statement on its Web site www.vroon.nl.
But the Australian government rejected this proposal, saying the best option for the welfare of the sheep was to find a new home in the Middle East and that talks were ongoing.
"Options are still being pursued to help the owner of the ship get the necessary paperwork to unload the sheep in a country in the region," said a spokesman for Agriculture Minister Warren Truss, declining to give details of the ongoing negotiations.
"Bringing them to Australia is not a realistic consideration. We are two to three weeks away by ship and Australian quarantine rules prevent the importation of livestock into Australia after they have potentially had contact at foreign ports."
Since Saudi Arabia rejected the sheep, the United Arab Emirates and, initially, Pakistan have also rejected them but talks are believed to have resumed with Pakistan.
Australian industry and government officials will not comment on the whereabouts of the ship or name the Saudi importer for fear of jeopardizing the sheep's chances of reaching dry land.
The Pakistani government has said the sheep were at the port of Dubai and that it was sending experts there to check the animals before deciding on whether to accept the shipment.
As the largest livestock exporter in the world, Australia sends around six million sheep in 160 shiploads to the Middle East each year and the government wants to ensure this row does not threaten its US$665 million a year livestock industry.
The Australian government has suspended exports of sheep to Saudi Arabia, its largest market, since the row over the sheep aboard the Cormo Express erupted.