It is 7am in the port of Cartagena, and the Jouri, a livestock carrier, is preparing for loading. Dozens of trucks full of noisy cattle wait for their animals to be weighed before being transferred to the ship.
Tourists visiting its Roman ruins and nearby beaches may never guess that this region has quietly become one of the biggest players in the global live animal trade.
Last month saw a spike in exports, driven by demand for animals to be slaughtered for Eid al-Adha, the festival of sacrifice, which took place in July this year and is celebrated across the Muslim world.
A boom in Spain’s exports over the past decade has seen it establish itself as Europe’s largest exporter of cattle by sea and the second-largest exporter of sheep after Romania.
More than three million farm animals have been sent on ships from the port of Cartagena over the past five years, mostly to the Middle East and North Africa, in a trade worth a worth nearly £500m to Spain in 2020.
A tightening of animal welfare rules by another major farm animal exporter, Australia, has been a big boost for Spain. The new rules include requirements for the conditions under which animals will be slaughtered once they arrive in destination countries.
Since the introduction of the new rules in 2011, Australia has ceased trade with Saudi Arabia and Libya, with the two countries now the main destinations for sheep and cattle from Spain, along with Lebanon and Jordan. .
“Usually in a market if someone steps down…someone else comes to fill the void, and Spain was ready to do that,” says Olga Kikou, head of European affairs at Compassion in World. Farming, an organization which campaigns for stricter European regulations on the welfare of farmed animals.
Spain is also the ideal place to fatten animals, say animal welfare campaigners, who point to the relatively low cost of feed and the large amount of space available for the animals. Many of the cattle are male calves unwanted by the dairy industry and sent to Spain from all over Europe.
Along with Tarragona, another Spanish port 500 km to the north, Cartagena is the only facility in Spain authorized to ship live animals by sea.
Last year almost 400,000 animals were exported from Cartagena and a total of 534,000 from all over Spain. Not that anyone in the city itself knows. Trucks from farms all over Spain bring the animals directly to an area of the port closed to the public. It’s only when trucks arrive after the port closes and drivers have to wait at a nearby gas station that the sound of animals gives strangers a clue.
Animal welfare campaigners use superzoom lenses to search for evidence of breaches of EU rules. These include: injuries, poor conditions inside the trucks and cruelty to animals when loaded.
“Most people wouldn’t even understand why we put a goat, sheep, pig or cattle on a long haul. It just doesn’t make sense. It is unnecessary cruelty, which will sooner or later be the end of this industry”, explains Gabriel Paun, director of Animals International.
Although veterinarians check animals before boarding, conditions on board remain largely unknown, with only Australia releasing mortality figures for voyages often lasting several days. Campaigners are calling for the mandatory presence of a veterinarian on vessels to be included in new EU legislation, due by the end of 2023.
Last year nearly 3,000 cattle exported from Spain on two separate ships died within two weeks. The Karim Allah and the Elbeik have been blocked after being refused entry to Middle Eastern ports due to suspected cases of bluetongue.
The Karim Allah had left Cartagena with 895 cows on board and had been refused entry to several ports in Turkey, Libya and Tunisia. After a two-month trip, he returned to Cartagena.
During the trip, 31 animals died. The others were declared unfit and euthanized in early March. The Elbeik, with 1,789 animals on board, suffered the same fate. When it returned to the port of Spain, 179 animals had already died. The remaining animals were also declared unfit and euthanized.
The Elbeik’s official report, seen by the Guardian, describes a lack of water and food for the animals, with faulty feeding systems, overcrowding of parts of the ship, failure to comply with density rules maximum and a general neglect of animal welfare by the crew. .
The captain also confessed to Spanish authorities that at least 169 cattle had been chopped up and thrown overboard in the Mediterranean.
Activists continue to push for an outright EU ban on the live animal trade and its replacement with frozen meat exports.
Some Spanish politicians agree. María Marín, a member of the Murcia regional parliament, said her Unidas Podemos party would propose regulations to “prohibit trade in livestock to third countries” and replace it with trade in meat “from animals slaughtered in Europe in accordance with regulations European”.
Broad political support for such a ban in Spain remains unlikely, says Spain’s animal rights party, the Party Against Animal Abuse. “Spain is an industrial farm that makes an important contribution to the economy of the country and private companies. It was actually one of the few sectors that grew during the pandemic,” he said in a written response.
A starting point would be greater transparency, argues Guillermo Díaz, a national deputy from the liberal Ciudadanos party. “As long as citizens don’t have information about this trade, there will be no pressure against it,” he says. “If people knew how these animals are raised and transported, they would turn against it.”
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