A Need for Change: Australia’s Livestock Export Trade

Live export sheep_credit ALEC 16x9-2Australia-China Export Ship

Abuse is rampant in Australia’s livestock export trade. While some try to hide from it, others embrace it as an unavoidable evil; where some businesses cut the cost of materials or labour, the live export trade cuts the standard of care for animals, abysmally. Most politicians do not care. Most farmers do not care. The export trade en masse does not care.

Recently, footage emerged of sheep dying from heat-related stresses in a Qatar abattoir and, once again, pushed the barbarity of this industry into the limelight and a much-needed investigation. This is not the first, nor will it be the last, abuse uncovered in this industry.

Controversy after controversy after controversy has gripped this industry since it became the subject of modernisation. Practices that once lay hidden behind closed doors, now frequent the public.

“Livestock export is a centuries-old practice in Australia, but the cameras are new.”

As humans strive for empathetic and altruistic societies, the continued presence of this industry stands as an affront to that which we seek. We, as progressive thinkers, must do what we can to hasten the end of this archaic industry. Knowledge will be instrumental to this end.

Neglect & Big Business.

The size and nature of the livestock export industry necessitates the continued and systemic neglect of animals to function profitably. During the 2014-18 period, Australia exported 11,886,496 animals, ranging from cattle to alpacas to goats and more. Some of these animals travel more than 12,000 kilometres over the course of several weeks before reaching their final destination.

To achieve this level of operation in an economically viable way, corners need to be cut. Corner-cutting that has become synonymous the export industry. Results of this negligence include;

  • Hermetic ship designs increase the risk of heat stress. In 2013, over 4,000 Australian sheep died on the Bader III due to heat-related stresses.
  • Export ships are often exposed to rough seas and unexpected weather. Similar to humans, the animals suffer from sea sickness and are at a heightened risk of injury from falling.
  • Export ships have kept the same stocking density for nearly 40 years. Studies suggest this is half the minimum space needed for basic daily movements.
  • Poor drainage systems result in the build-up of wet faeces. Animals are often fully coated by journeys end – numerous ailments are borne out of these conditions and rates of septic cellulitis are significantly high.
  • Food and water supplies are inevitably contaminated by the build-up of wet faeces. This increases the likelihood of dehydration and hunger.
  • Many animals are unable to rest due to the lack of space and bedding and the build-up of faeces. This increases rates of exhaustion, fatigue, injury and asphyxiation.
  • Hooved animals require soft bedding to alleviate the pressures placed on their body by the ships hard-surfaced floors. These surfaces are akin to humans walking barefoot on rocky ground on an oscillating platform. This can result in lameness, hoof damage, painful abrasions and injury et cetera.
  • Animals often give birth during transit. The offspring are either subjected to and die from the conditions of the ship or are killed for commercial reasons. The risk of Mastitis is significantly increased.
  • The Australian Government sets levels for ‘acceptable on-board morality rates’. For some animals, this is as high as 2 percent of the ship – some ships carry over 80,000 animals. Although, this figure is rarely enforced. For example, 32 sheep voyages over a 5-year period had an unusually high mortality, but only 3 were investigated.

While I can attempt to describe the situation on these ships with words, it will fall short of expressing just how bad these conditions are. Video footage conveys a far more confronting and dire situation. For anyone sceptical when I condemn these conditions, I would implore you to view them for yourself beforehand.


On Arrival.

The plight of these animals does not end when they reach port. For many, it has just begun. Many of the importing countries maintain archaic ideologies that place animals far below the bar of basic concern.

In 2011, the livestock export industry was forced to respond to allegations of cruelty when it was revealed that Australian animals were subjected to systemic abuse in overseas facilities. New regulations were introduced to increase the animal welfare standards of the industry and trade was resumed. Since the resumption of livestock exportation, footage has surfaced of the conditions these animals now face under new ‘welfare standards’;

In Pakistan, 20,000 sheep were stabbed and clubbed, before being buried alive.

In Kuwait, sheep’s throats are sawn open before being sold on an illegal market – on multiple occasions.

In Qatar, 7,000 sheep and lambs die from heat stress and malnutrition.

In Egypt, cattle are stabbed in eyes and have their leg tendons slashed before being butchered alive.

In Mauritius, false declarations are made in official reports to cover up illegal shipping of pregnant cows.

In Israel, sheep are kicked and punched before being thrown from export ship.

In Gaza, cattle stabbed in eye, kicked and punched, tied up and kneecapped with assault rifles.

In Malaysia, Gentle steers have their legs bound before being brutally slaughtered while fully conscious.

In Vietnam, cattle routinely sledgehammered to death. Australia’s Department of Agriculture indicates knowledge of events but no mitigation policies introduced.

In Jordan, Australian sheep are deliberately and systemically on-sold to unapproved private slaughter.

In Australia, systemic and routine tampering with CCTV footage and covering up of abuses by farming regulatory body and Department of Agriculture evident. Exporters regularly flout animal welfare regulations.

This is a shortened list of known abuses paraphrased from Animals Australia. There have been 100’s of violations since the ban.

All these events and more have occurred while the Australian government has continued to brandish a message that its exporters are subjected to some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world.

“This industry entails unnecessary pain and suffering for all the animals involved within it. Anyone who tells you different is either ill-informed, they’re a liar or they’re staying silent for fear of losing their job”
– Dr Lynn Simpson, Veterinarian


Flickr: Nicolas Kohout

In the Shadows.

The livestock trade has thrived in the shadows of the Australian legal system, underpinned by a political disdain that deems these animals as lesser beings. Were a human or an animal regarded highly by humans, such as a cat or dog, exposed to the treatment and conditions of this trade, widespread and complete condemnation would ensue. But, put a cow or a lamb in this position and the standard of basic care drops, abysmally.

Notwithstanding, this standard does face challenges when it comes to the attention of the public – not the politicians or the farmers. And herein lies one of the biggest problems – transparency. As noted by Animals Australia:

“Australia’s live sheep trade has operated for over five decades with only those financially invested in the trade having visual access to the conditions and welfare implications for the sheep on-board”

Those that stand to lose the most from heightened welfare standards are those positioned to monitor the welfare of animals on-board. Federal politicians have ensured that trade is quick to resume after, often during, every controversy.



 Why are politician’s adamant about supporting this industry despite its systemic abuse and widespread condemnation?

 There is a simple answer – in my mind. Money talks. Furthermore, livestock do not vote, but farmers do. Collectively, farmers form part of a very large and powerful lobbying group in Australia, sending a strong message to those who oppose them;

“A ban is emotion-driven and unscientific.”

Many farming bodies, supported by federal politicians, including Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, have branded this sentiment almost to the point of a slogan, in response to renewed calls of a ban after the footage emerged of 2,400 sheep dying on transit to the Middle East.

This empty rhetoric is pushed by many politicians and supporters of the live export industry. That a ban is an entirely emotional response; that the 100’s of documented cases of animal abuses that occur year after year are non-consequential; ethical conduct is irrelevant and unimportant; ensuring the continued and uninterrupted flow of money through the industry is most concerning. Meaningful condemnation or bias conjecture?

During 2011, in the midst of the second suspension of livestock export, a small but vocal minority condemned the suspension as ‘commercially unwise for farmers and exporters’ i.e. the systemic abuse of an industry given the duty of care for millions of animals a year should not be reason to inconvenience farmers and exporters. Scarcely a word on anything but the potential monetary impact a ban or phase-out of the livestock trade can be heard amongst the rallying calls of the industries supporters.

“Thousands of regional workers and livestock producers in Australia depend on this industry”
– Tony Seabrooke, Farmer

Exactly how many workers rely on this industry? You might ask. According to Meat & Livestock Australia the industry employs 13,000 workers and brings in $1.8 billion AUD. (For simplicities sake, I will agree with these numbers).  The size, reach and political pull of this industry has facilitated its continued operation relatively free from the high standard of regulation that is required to achieve adequate animal welfare standards or that would set a standard of ethical conduct for any other industry.

Finally, a misconstrued identity of farmers has epitomised the industries dominance. Through Australia’s long history of farming, the practice has become intertwined with the nations culture. We are fed this image of resolute men ploughing the fields and herding livestock day-in and day-out in a sun-scorched land. Their labour is difficult but essential to maintain the frivolous normality of most Australians. This identity, or something akin, is what most envisage a farmer to be.

It is not what I picture. With more than two-thirds of and up to nine-tenths of livestock coming from identified ‘factory farms’, I imagine something greatly different to the romanticised image provided above – the livestock export market is the epitome of industrialised agriculture and has long since detached itself from the humble origins of small-scale farming. Farming, in most cases, is a big and powerful business with enough brunt to indoctrinate a society into accepting a systemically abusive industry that has committed some of the worst atrocities of this century.


A Long-awaited Response.

After all the condemnation of the export industry in this article, we come its penultimate conclusion – addressing the long-awaited mitigation strategy of the Federal Government after the deaths of 2500 sheep on transit to Qatar. An ‘independent review’ was launched to underpin the government’s response.  It must be noted that this review focused on a tiny fragment of the export industry. The parameters were; specifically, sheep in transit to the middle east during the Northern Hemisphere Summer. All welfare issues missing either parameter was not considered in the review.

The report makes 23 distinctive recommendations. Most target bureaucratic reform, such as independent reviews of a vessel’s pen air turnover, and new reporting mechanisms – things related to the issue that have very little to do with overcoming the issue. One recommendation affects the stocking density of ships and has received a lot of positive coverage. Specifically, the stocking density of sheep should be reduced 39% to an allometric k value of 0.0030 – just shy of the minimum requirement needed for basic daily movement – during heightened mercury levels.

Many welfare advocates have been sceptical of the review and its attempt to kick the can down the road;

“weak, not based on science or evidence, and left farmers holding a ticking time bomb”
“[a] lily-livered government response designed to protect exporters, not animals”
– Animals Australia

While this review would never have occurred under the former hyper-conservative Agricultural Minister Barnaby, this has been nothing more than a political stunt attempting to quell the growing concern of the general public without a much-needed overhaul.

For me, the insufficiency of these recommendations has been highlighted by the National Farmers Federation President, Fiona Simson’s, attempt to find a positive response to this review;

“What I can give the public a guarantee about is a better system than we currently have. This is [an] improvement and that is, I think, what we have to continually strive for”

 I fail to see how the industry could worsen after the neglectful deaths of 2,500 sheep. 

In Conclusion.

The animals of this trade are subjected to deplorable conditions. But, the only time they are deemed such, is when these conditions are brought into the light of the public eye. And this practice is only continuing to garner footage of its own misgivings.

In all the articles on the ban, with particular reference to those that support the livestock export industry, a single line only varying slightly, is evident. I have chosen to use the line from Jessica Blanchett & Bruno Zeller’s article titled ‘No winners in the suspension of the livestock trade to Indonesia’.  The line reads;

“this article, while acknowledging the existence of animal rights issues, focuses on the commercial and legal aspects of the ban”.

Or, as I have come to understand it;

“there are clear examples of the abuse of the rights of animals in the livestock export industry. But, acknowledging this in conjunction with economic desires would be impossible to justify to the benefit of the industry “

(The article concludes by remarking that the ban was nothing more than a shallow attempt to please the interest of animal lovers and that, asides from this, the ban has no tangible reason).

The livestock export industry of Australia, including many of the farmers of Australia and many of abattoirs of foreign countries and many of the politicians that have supported and facilitated the indiscretions of this industry are unable to impartially value the welfare of animals beyond what is damaging to their wallet. This kind of mentality aligns with some of the worst atrocities committed throughout history.  Therefore, I argue that this industry is incapable of operating appropriately on its own terms because profits are too heavily motivating in its willingness to abide by basic moral standings and, hence, should be completely disbanded.

“I support a ban on the export of livestock. What about you?”



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