After three months stranded in the Mediterranean, a livestock ship carrying almost 1,800 young bulls has been ordered to dock at the Spanish port of Cartagena.
The Elbeik is expected to arrive in Cartagena this evening, having left the Spanish port of Tarragona in mid-December.
It has been struggling to find a buyer for the cattle after being refused entry by multiple countries, including Turkey and Libya, over fears the animals had a disease called bluetongue.
Sources have told the Guardian almost 180 cattle are now dead, more than double a previous estimate. An MEP has suggested that the “hellish” stress of three months at sea means slaughter on arrival at port is now the most humane option.
Following recent stops near Cyprus and in Greek ports to reprovision, the Elbeik returned to Spanish waters earlier this week, anchoring off the island of Menorca.
Spanish authorities on Tuesday ordered the ship to dock in Cartagena, describing it as the “most suitable port” for the inspection and possible unloading and slaughter of the animals. A source within the ministry of agriculture said the vessel would be inspected by vets once docked.
The return order comes just weeks after Spanish authorities slaughtered more than 850 young bulls in Cartagena from another livestock ship, the Karim Allah. The ship had also left Spain in mid-December and been refused entry to ports in Turkey and elsewhere because of bluetongue fears.
On Wednesday a source close to the Elbeik said the owner of its cattle hoped to arrange blood tests for the animals when the ship arrives in Cartagena. If the results showed them to be free of bluetongue and other diseases, the source said the owner plans to sell the animals “to north Africa”.
The Guardian has been sent a document, apparently signed by the Elbeik’s captain, saying 179 bulls had died at sea, up from a previous estimate of 80 deaths. Another 1,610 animals appeared “normal and healthy”, which it credited to the crew’s good care , but said “lately they have been frustrated due to staying on board” for so long.
The Karim Allah had likewise arranged blood draws and aimed to sell the bulls if they were disease-free, but Spain’s agriculture ministry ordered the bulls to be put down before the blood samples were analysed.
Some MEPs and NGOs have argued that euthanising the bulls in Spain, rather than sending them on another long journey to face possibly less humane slaughter, was a kinder option.
“For more than three months these animals [on the Elbeik] have been on this hellish ride,” said MEP Thomas Waitz, a member of an EU committee examining animal transport issues and European Green party co-chair.
Waitz said the “constant stress” of being at sea, on top of food and water shortages, meant the young bulls were probably in “a dire state” and euthanasia now appeared “the only responsible thing to do”.
Campaigners blame the EU for continuing to allow lengthy export journeys for farm animals and failing to manage problems. Unexpected problems, said Olga Kikou of Compassion in World Farming, were exacerbated by a failure to make contingency plans for animals facing hold-ups and a lack of clarity over who was responsible for their welfare.
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