SA in race against time to get EU horse export ban lifted

Aidan Soule - Saturday, August 01, 2015

Source: BD Live

SOUTH Africa’s failure to develop an internationally accepted vaccine for African horse sickness is threatening the productivity of the local export industry, jobs growth and profits.

In 2011, the European Union (EU) suspended horse exports from South Africa because of the disease. The suspension of exports to the EU, in place since 2011, was meant to have ended in June — this did not happen as South Africa’s veterinary services failed an inspection by EU health inspectors.

However, while the suspension remains in place, competition horses are being rerouted through Mauritius at considerable cost and delays of up to six months, which is putting off potential foreign buyers.

It can take less than two weeks to export horses from South Africa to Singapore, for example, if the Mauritian leg is excluded. Horse buyers are eyeing countries such as Australia instead, which is not under quarantine.

Thoroughbred Breeders Association CEO Tom Callaghan says the quarantine barrier is holding back growth potential.

African horse sickness originates from indigenous wildlife — mainly zebras, but also African donkeys — and is transmitted by the Culicoides midge, which feeds on the blood of equids and other animal species.

According to Mr Callaghan, there is a major horse buyer from Hong Kong who thinks South African horses are "great" and wants to buy, but the export problem prevents him from purchasing them.

South African thoroughbred horses have gained a great reputation both locally and internationally. For instance, Victory Moon, sold for R200,000 as a yearling at the Cape Vintage sale, became Dubai’s horse of the year in 2004, winning the UAE Guineas, $2m UAE Derby and ran third in the $6m Dubai World Cup, and earned $2.4m.

Other South African-bred horses such as Jay Peg, Lizard’s Desire and Ipi Tombe have performed and achieved great success on the international stage. However, South African-bred horses continue to be shunned due to the sickness.

Racing SA CEO Peter Gibson warns that until the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries prioritises a vaccine for African horse sickness, the local export industry will continue to lose investments to competing countries, which are already getting a lion’s share of the $500m-a-year business.

The effect of the viral disease is enormous and is being felt throughout the industry. It is adding to the general deterioration that has plagued the industry in the past 26 or 27 years.

Northfields Bloodstock MD Robin Bruss says the number of jobs has dropped from 100,000 in 1986 to only 17,000 in 2010, breeders have decreased from 1,100 to 300, and stallions have been reduced from 500 to 100.

As a controlled disease, there is legislation in place to try and control African horse sickness through vaccination and strict reporting of suspected cases.

However, due to inadequate investment in research and development, in particular "dead" vaccine development, and ill-equipped veterinary services (of the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries ), breeders and owners say South Africa is fast losing the battle against this deadly disease, says Mr Gibson.

But the ultimate solution to the problem would be to develop a vaccine that is accepted internationally and can convince horse buyers that it is safe to buy horses from South Africa.

Mr Callaghan says the two-year process of developing such a vaccine would cost an estimated R50m. This money would have to come from both the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and the Department of Trade and Industry, he says.

Mr Bruss says: "South African horses are undervalued abroad and we are losing a lot of money on potential exports. We need this R50m to help unlock the demand for South Africa’s horses."

Industry stakeholders are in discussions with both departments to get the funding.

Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries director of animal health Mpho Maja says that the department will endorse efforts to develop the "dead vaccine", which does not have the virus. "Work on novel, improved and inactivated (dead) vaccines is continuing and is supported by the government as part of its base-line funding to universities and state research institutions as well as special funding available from state research funds, like the National Research Fund."

She says developing the dead vaccine may be "plagued (with trouble) due to the special characteristics of these viruses".

Some of the challenges relating to exporting South African horses "are out of the control of any government authority".

Mr Bruss says the government needs to realise that the R50m would be a great investment for the economy as "it will pay off in the form of jobs and trade" that will be created when export barriers are down.

Mr Callaghan says the horse-racing industry could employ up to 100,000 people if the economic conditions constraining horse-racing were resolved, including the export of horses.

The Thoroughbred Breeders Association sells about 2,500 horses a year, most of which are bought and raced in South Africa, with a small percentage of these being exported to race overseas.

Sean Tarry, one of the best licensed horse trainers in South Africa and the trainer of the Vodacom Durban July’s winning horse, Heavy Metal, says that because of African horse sickness, the strict international quarantine protocols make it difficult for local racehorse trainers to thrive.

"South African trainers operate in a sense in isolation, which is a major disadvantage for competing internationally."

Industry stakeholders argue that the local economy would be significantly boosted should these protocols be changed.

According to Mr Gibson, access to global bloodstock markets is one of the single biggest stimuli to grow the sport of horse-racing in South Africa, and thus the sport’s contribution to gross domestic product. African horse sickness is the biggest obstacle in achieving this.

"Currently, South Africa has a menial 0.25% share of the global bloodstock market. This is the opportunity for us as a country to grow our market share, which will mean we breed more horses and we can create more jobs," says Mr Callaghan.

Dr Maja has called upon the equine industry to "invest in suitable insect-protected quarantine stations to facilitate the ongoing export of horses to destinations such as Mauritius, and possible new future destinations", until the vaccine has been developed.

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