Animal rights activists around the world, including former actress Brigitte Bardot, have protested over their treatment.
More than 5000 of the original shipment of 58,000 sheep have died, mainly of heat and exhaustion, on a so-called Ship of Death which has been sailing the oceans since early August.
The Dutch-owned MV Cormo Express, set out for Saudi Arabia on August 5 but the shipment was rejected by the kingdom amid claims they were diseased.
Now the ship is set to sail back to Australia early next week, according to Agriculture Minister Warren Truss. It will first head to the Cocos Islands - an Australian possession in the Indian Ocean - where the animals will undergo quarantine tests, he said, dismissing fears exotic diseases could be carried to Australia.
The ship is currently restocking in Kuwait and is expected to set sail on Monday night.
Last-ditch attempts to find a buyer for the Western Australian sheep, which have been rejected by 30 countries since Saudi Arabia’s refusal, are to continue while it is on route, but the government admits one is unlikely to be found.
Animal welfare groups want the sheep slaughtered at sea, but the government says that would take too long, be dangerous to the people involved and could cause an environmental disaster.
Truss said they might be slaughtered at sea if disease was found, but post-mortems and blood tests had so far not revealed any. In the weeks it would take the ship to return to Australia, any disease should be detected, he added.
“With a further seven to 10 days’ travel time, further round of blood tests taken at Cocos Island, further travel time, any reasonable incubation period would have passed,” Truss said.
In a bid to silence its critics, the government has announced an inquiry into the live sheep trade.
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals(RSPCA) has expressed its indifference to the investigation, saying it would not take part. The RSPCA said the government had already conducted two inquiries and ignored the society’s recommendations.
“Minister Truss has refused to come clean about this whole issue. He will not publicly acknowledge true mortality figures”, the society said in a statement.
"...instead they are still trapped on that death ship in extreme temperatures, humidity and surrounded by a sea of their own excrement"
Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals
The RSPCA had recommended in late September that the only solution is an emergency slaughter.
“If such measures had been taken when recommended, those poor animals would be out of their misery now – instead they are still trapped on that death ship in extreme temperatures, extreme humidity and surrounded by a sea of their own excrement.”
Independent vets have backed Australia’s claim the animals are untainted, but no takers have been found, even when they were offered for free.
Australia repurchased the sheep for $3.1 million from their Saudi owner. Truss said the cost of the whole debacle was now in excess of six million Australian dollars.
Opposition leader Simon Cream said the government had completely mishandled the affair.
“It’s been a debacle. These sheep went away as lambs and they are coming back as mutton, it’s taken so long,” Cream said.