NSW Liberal Democratic Senator David Leyonhjelm has accused RSPCA Australia of “cultural imperialism” in raising public fears and warnings about the potential live export of Australian horses and donkeys for slaughter in overseas markets.
RSPCA issued a media statement in response to a recent Senate estimates hearing where independent Victorian Senator Derryn Hinch quizzed Department of Agriculture and Water Resources officials about the potential live trade opportunity.
That’s despite the Australian Livestock Exporters' Council also issuing a counter statement saying a live export trade in Australian horses and donkeys didn’t currently exist and its members weren’t seeking or supportive of any such trade commencing.
Department officials told Senator Hinch steps were being taken to address a policy gap where sheep, cattle, llamas, camels and buffaloes must have an Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System (ESCAS) arrangement in place to be exported overseas for slaughter - but not for equine animals.
The Department said “a couple” of inquiries had been made from potential exporters asking what they must do to export horses or donkeys overseas in large numbers for slaughter, which had alerted them to a gap in the current ESCAS arrangements.
Senator Hinch was also told no application was currently before the Department for donkeys to be bred in Australia and then exported and slaughtered in China with their hides used for anti-ageing cosmetic purposes.
But the RSPCA said Australian ponies, horses and donkeys were next on the Australian government’s live export “hit list - facing a perilous journey before being slaughtered overseas for their skin and meat” while demanding a permanent prohibition on the export of those animal types, for slaughter.
The RSPCA said it understood enquiries to export donkeys and horses ‘in large numbers for slaughter’ were associated with Chinese demand for equines.
“Pony, horse and donkey meat is eaten, while donkey skin is dried and ground up to make a gelatine-based substance called ‘ejiao’, which is used by people who believe it is good for their appearance and vitality,” it said.
“With donkey populations throughout Africa now decimated as a result, Chinese companies are looking to new sources to feed their demand - including Australia.
“Creating this new live export market will mean sending Australian horses and donkeys – that have been taken from the wild, retired from the racing industry, or bought from their owners – on a dangerous and uncertain live export voyage, to be slaughtered in foreign countries under poor standards.
“The RSPCA and its supporters are calling on the Australian government to stop this cruel trade before it starts, and prohibit the live export of ponies, horses and donkeys once and for all.”
But Senator Leyonhjelm said the RSPCA was opposed to live animal exports of all kinds and wasn’t interested in economics or whether humans in other countries should be able to eat what they like.
“We used to call such an attitude cultural imperialism,” he said.
“The claim that the animals will face a ‘perilous’ or ‘dangerous and uncertain’ journey cannot be substantiated.
“If there are instances of cruelty during transportation, that’s exactly what the RSPCA is supposed to be addressing.
“It should be working with exporters to ensure there is no cruelty during transport.
“If thoroughbred racehorses can be shipped all over the world to race, other horses and donkeys can certainly be transported humanely.”
The Department’s Live Animal Exports Assistant Secretary Dr Narelle Clegg also told Senate estimates the number of mortalities was 17,098 animals out of 2,875,081 exported live in 2016 (1485 for cattle, 15,591 for sheep and 22 for buffalo).
WA Liberal Senator Chris Back referred to an official report that’s tabled every six months by the Agriculture Minister showing the mortality rate was 0.13 of 1 per cent in 2016 for cattle and 0.86 for sheep.
A Department of Environment fact sheet says an estimated 400,000 feral horses and millions of feral donkeys exist, mainly in central and northern Australia and are “serious environmental pests”.
“Both species cause erosion, spread weeds and compete for pasture with native animals and livestock,” it said.
“Feral horses pose a particularly complex management problem because they can have economic and cultural value and debate continues about the best way to manage their populations in Australia.
“Feral horses overgraze large areas because they can travel up to 50 kilometres from water in search of food - this can force native wildlife from its favoured habitats.”
The fact sheet said most of the estimated 400,000 feral horses occurred in extensive cattle production areas of the NT, Queensland and some parts of WA and SA, while scattered populations are found in NSW and Victoria, mainly in alpine and sub-alpine areas.
It said Australia also had as many as five million feral donkeys in arid central Australia, the Kimberley in WA and the Top End in the NT, while drought has had a severe impact on feral horses with old ones, juveniles and mares with young, the most vulnerable.
“During drought many horses can die, mainly from starvation, lack of water and eating toxic plants that they usually avoid,” it said.
“They gather round waterholes where they are often culled for humane reasons.”