KUWAIT CITY // Livestock markets yesterday sold live sheep to customers preparing to celebrate Eid Al Adha, continuing a controversial trade that has been under attack by animal-rights activists.
They have campaigned against allowing animals to be sold for slaughter in private, unregulated environments, including the sheep, goats and camels that provide the meat used in many of the celebration's favourite meals.
Yesterday, live sheep and goats were sold in dozens of stalls at the sprawling Al Rai market in Kuwait City. Vendors from Arab countries and the subcontinent shouted "tanzilat, tanzilat,", the Arabic word for "discount", and pulled the beasts on to their hind legs for display as Kuwaiti men, along with their wives and children, wandered through the market in search of a deal.
After the sale, the vendors often bound the sheep's legs with wire and tossed the animal into the back of their customers' pickup trucks, SUVs or even car boots for slaughter elsewhere.
Farmers said most of the livestock originated from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iran and Syria.
"My family will feast on this sheep tonight," said one Kuwaiti customer, Salah, who planned to slaughter the animal at his house. "It's fine. This is Halal."
Other customers planned to bring the animals to an official slaughterhouse before bringing the carcass home to prepare for the feast.
The transportation of live sheep in the claustrophobic confines of private vehicles was criticised in an investigation last year by Animals Australia, an animal welfare group. The report said Australian sheep in Al Rai Market were being slaughtered until the "streets were running with blood".
There were no obvious signs of animals being sacrificed in or around the market this year, although some men offered a service to kill the beasts at customers' homes.
Reports by animal rights' activists encouraged Australia to put pressure on its major export markets in the Middle East - places such as Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar - into implementing a strategy that will ensure the welfare of Australian sheep in the run-up to Eid.
Last month, the president of the Sheepmeat Council of Australia (SCA), Kate Joseph, said in a statement the industry has been working "proactively" to ensure export markets address animal welfare issues.
"Key to assuring the welfare of Australian sheep is the implementation by importers and importing governments of a 'no private sales' policy to unknown slaughter points in these markets," she said.
"Instead, sheep will be processed in on-site or nearby facilities that comply with global welfare standards," the statement said.
Australian Livestock Exporters' Council chairman Peter Kane said in a statement the agreement to end private sales in some Middle East countries was a groundbreaking decision and represented a significant cultural shift.
"It must be remembered that we are dealing with complex cultural and religious tradition and that Australia has no jurisdiction in out overseas markets," he said.
The main company importing animals, the Kuwait Livestock Transport and Trading Company (KLTTC), which is 61 per cent government owned, has since said it is keen to ensure sheep are slaughtered in line with world standards.
This week, no Australian animals were found in the private market, suggesting the government is taking the ban seriously.
Australian newspapers reported last month that SCA planned to send 20 to 30 observers, including Australians and locals, to markets in the Middle East to make sure Australian sheep were not being sold to individuals. The SCA also planned to warn against Australian private sales in an advertising campaign.
In the run-up to Eid, advertisements - without any indication of the sponsor - appeared in the local press entitled "Important Public Announcement".
"Due to changes in Australian regulations with animal welfare requirements, slaughter of Australian sheep must only take place in an Approved Slaughter Facility," the notice said. "Your cooperation is highly appreciated."
But foreign pressure to ban the slaughter of imported animals at homes could be interfering with well-established religious traditions in the region. For many Kuwaitis, killing an animal on your private property is not only permissible under Sharia law, it's actually preferable.
"I will slaughter the animal in my house, because it's better for the children to see it," said Khaled Al Refai, a senior engineering supervisor at Kuwait Oil Company, as he perused the Syrian livestock at the market. "It's better in the religion - it's written in the Sunnah," he said.
Mr Al Refai believes the Australians are opposed to ritual slaughter because "it looks gory" and there is lots of blood. But when the sacrifice is carried out according to Islamic guidelines, the animal is calm during the procedure, he said.
In a sign the sheep trade between the two countries remains healthy. the KLTTC announced it had imported 186,000 live Australian sheep to prepare for Eid.
A possible side effect of the ban on the sale of Australian animals from private markets is that the prices of livestock from other countries have increased. Mr Al Refai said Australian sheep are usually the cheapest in the private market, but their absence has forced bargain-hunters to buy the next least expensive "nationality" of animal.
"Now everybody is going for Iranian; it's driving up the prices of everything," he said.
Kuwait was Australia's largest destination for exports of live sheep in 2010, a market worth 112 million Australian dollars (Dh427 million), or 35 per cent of the country's total live sheep exports. Adeeb Al Salem, a spokesman for the KLTTC, said animal welfare activists all over the world campaign against the transport, holding and slaughter of live animals, but he contends their demands are unreasonable and argues the company meets international standards. They want to "let the sheep stay in the Sheraton", he joked.
Bill Farmer, an Australian diplomat who conducted the independent review of Australia's livestock export trade this year, said in the report an issue of concern was the "significant flock of merinos" - almost indistinguishable from Australian sheep - raised in Middle East countries such as Kuwait. Mr Farmer reported "sound animal identification and traceability systems" were important to distinguish the two. If the exclusion of Australian sheep from supply chains cannot be demonstrated, the regulator should rule against granting an export permit.