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'Two years is too long' - SAFE asks Govt to make live export ban immediate, calls for air export ban

Animal rights organisation SAFE has today issued a statement asking the Government to consider making New Zealand’s live animal export ban immediate rather than within two years.

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CEO Debra Ashton says the ban should cover not just exports by sea, but also by air. Source: 1 NEWS

It follows an announcement from the Government on Wednesday that it will officially end live animal exports by sea over a two-year period.

The announcement comes amid a months-long investigation by TVNZ’s Sunday programme into the controversial trade. Last night, the programme showed inside footage of a live cattle shipment that left Napier earlier this month.

The programme also revealed ship-wide suffering on the Yangtze Harmony last year, where 49 cows died during a voyage to China, with a further 19 killed after arrival.

Damien O'Connor, Minister of Agriculture and Minister for Trade and Export Growth, admitted on the programme he doesn’t know what happens to animals exported overseas.

“We don’t always know … there’s a lot of money paid for them, for mostly breeding purposes and I’m sure that they’re well looked after,” he said, admitting that it was an “assumption”.

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Sunday looks at how New Zealand's live export industry operated under the radar for decades. Source: Sunday

CEO of SAFE, Debra Ashton, told 1 NEWS it welcomes the announcement to ban live animal exports but says it doesn’t go far enough.

"Two years is two years too long," she says.

"With the horrific impacts for animals exposed by Sunday, including an ‘abortion storm’, there is no reason to delay."

"Hundreds of thousands of animals are going to suffer in this two year bracket and that's why the minister needs to make a call now and say 'no more'. He's going to make this call immediate and address the issue right here and right now. 

"If animal welfare is such an important thing, our reputation is so important. All eyes are on New Zealand right now and we need to make this a ban immediately," Ashton says. 

It's not just the journey that's harrowing for the animals on board shipments, but also the destination, she says.

"There is a lack of transparency around what happens to animals in places like China. But what we do know, is that they don't have animal welfare legislation like ours.

"They don't recognise sentience in their law like we do and sentience is about animals being recognised to have the ability to feel pain and sorrow and suffer. 

"We know that those animals going to China are going to be raised in conditions that aren't anything like the standards that we have here in this country."

Dr John Hellstrom, former chair of the National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee and former Chief Veterinary Officer at MPI, said "Once again, it has taken the leadership and advocacy of SAFE to achieve a major advance in animal welfare." 

"Without their work this long overdue ban on export of livestock by sea from New Zealand would not have been achieved," he said.

"This move [Banning live exports] will significantly improve our international animal welfare reputation. Most importantly, it will stop the suffering and distress these animals have had to endure."

Debra Ashton. Source: Supplied

What led to the ban?

A review into the future of livestock exports was launched in 2019, recommendations following this were made but calls for a total ban were growing.

The industry was thrust into the spotlight after the ship, Gulf Livestock 1 capsized last September in the East China Sea after leaving Napier.

Forty-one crew, including two New Zealanders on board, died alongside nearly 6000 cattle.

The Heron review was launched following the tragedy. The Government temporarily banned exports of live cattle, but allowed them to resume late last year with promises of improvements to the process.

But animal welfare concerns won out and the ban on all live exports by sea was decided.

O'Connor said it came because of “steadily increasing” concerns New Zealand's reputation would be harmed because of the trade.

“We can’t sustain the ongoing risk to our reputation when we can’t control the conditions,” he said following the announcement.

He said the two-year phasing out period was “only fair” – giving time for traders to “transition out” of live animal exports.

SAFE calls for ban on live animal air exports

The Government's ban only covers live animal exports by sea. However, Ashton says day-old chicks, crayfish, sheep and goats are exported by air and says SAFE wants the ban to include live exports by air as well. 

"The majority of our farmed animals are actually day-old baby chicks which are being put into containers - flown over to countries all around the world. The majority of them are going to China, we've had 2.5 million day-old baby chicks exported in the past year," Ashton says. 

"We've also had eels and crayfish, we've got sheep and goats - they're all going by air as well. But a lot of people don't know about that."

Ashton says she thinks the Government didn't include a ban on live animal exports by air because sea exports have "been in the spotlight".

"I think those that are travelling by air are pretty much unseen and unheard, so this is something that we will be working with the Government on because we'd like to see a ban on that too."

She says conditions in countries like China are as bad for those animals exported by air as they are by sea. 

"The day-old baby chicks that are going over to countries like China are most-likely being thrown into barren, battery hen cages. 

"These cages, we are phasing out in New Zealand, they'll be gone by the end of next year. So the question is posed, 'why on earth are we sending our beautiful little day-old baby chicks to countries where they are going to treat them in ways that we would find completely unacceptable?'"

Decision is 'morally and practically unjustified' say those who oppose the ban

Despite support in many corners over the decision, there is opposition.

"There are animal welfare, animal rights groups throughout the world that have actually been congratulating SAFE in seeing this ban has occured. 

"We've had groups like the SPCA, we've had World Animal Protection, we've had a lot of smaller volunteer groups around the country and internationally celebrating this decision," Ashton says. 

However the Animal Genetics Trade Association is among the groups that have lashed out against the decision, calling the ban “morally and practically unjustified”.

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The Government is bringing in a ban on livestock exports, taking effect in 2023. Source: 1 NEWS

Spokesperson and exporter Dave Hayman said the move would hurt farmers financially and require the premature slaughter of thousands of livestock every year.

He has been sending live cattle overseas for 20 years and has been lobbying intensively to continue.

“Farmers do have surplus animals to sell and if we don’t export them, then the likelihood is that those animals will be culled at a very young age. It would be devastating to our farmers not to have that option,” he told 1 NEWS following the announcement last week.

He said about 150,000 surplus heifer calves would probably need to be slaughtered every year.

But Ashton says "we are slaughtering millions a year as it is and I haven't heard anyone raise any concerns about that from the farming fraternity.

"They are not surplus stock, they are being specifically bred to go over to China. So in the past year, we have had over 110,000 cattle that have been sent over to China. They year before, it was a third of that.

"This has become a growth industry and they have been breeding animals specifically and on-purpose to go over to China. So to say now that these animals are going to have to be slaughtered, that's a bit of a call," Ashton says. 

Wayne Langford from Federated Farmers said farmers were mixed in their response.

“It would probably be a 50/50 split to be fair.

“We know it’s a contentious issue but quite surprise they’ve gone to a complete ban and not worked with industry further," Langford says. 

ACT MP and dairy farmer Mark Cameron says a cow can fetch up to $2000 overseas which is hundreds of dollars more than he can get in New Zealand.

“For me personally it was an injection of $25,000 to be quite candid with you, and it's a wonderful tool in the tool box,” he says.

But Ashton says she's not sure how many farmers are really affected.

"What we know is that it seems to be 50/50 with the approach and how many people really support this in the farming fraternity.

"I think where the dollar signs are really being affected most likely are with the exporters themselves because in the past few years we haven't had a lot of farmers making a lot of money, from what we can see.

"It's only been in the last year that the numbers have increased so phenomenally that I think farmers were seeing it as a new option to add on to what they were currently doing."