Australia shocked by death of 2,400 sheep on 'death ship'

A distressed sheep photographed on the Panama-flagged livestock carrier Awassi Express.
A distressed sheep photographed on the Panama-flagged livestock carrier Awassi Express.PHOTO: AFP

PERTH, AUSTRALIA (NYTIMES) - The Australian government said on Monday (April 9) that it would investigate the mistreatment of animals after video recently emerged showing thousands of sheep dying from heat stress on board a ship travelling to the Middle East.

Mr David Littleproud, the Agriculture Minister, said he was "shocked and gutted" by the footage and promised that those responsible would be punished.

The video was apparently taken in August 2017 on a converted car carrier owned by Emanuel Exports, a shipping company based in Perth, Australia.

The ship, the Awassi Express, was sailing from Fremantle, a port in the state of Western Australia, to Doha, Qatar.

The footage, which was broadcast on Sunday on Australia's 60 Minutes news programme, shows the sheep dying on the decks while rotting corpses are being tossed overboard. More than 2,400 sheep died of heat stress, according to the report.

The video also included images of sheep dying in their own faeces.

About 1.4 million sheep raised in Western Australia are herded onto ships each year, and nearly 75 per cent of Australia's annual live animal trade - worth about 1 billion Australian dollars, or about S$1.02 billion - comes from the state, according to Mr David Slade, president of WAFarmers Livestock, a trade organisation.

Given the live animal trade's importance to the state, critics said the video was unlikely to result in real change.

Live exports have been "an abject failure", said Mr Josh Wilson, a Member of Parliament from Fremantle and a member of the Labor Party.

"There has been no independent supervision of these 'death ships', and no penalties in relation to the mass death and suffering of sheep," said Mr Wilson, who accused the governing Liberal Party of not adequately regulating the industry.

"I wouldn't be surprised," he said, "if the only serious change the exporter has made since this incident is to ban all staff from having smartphones on board."

Animal activists said the government of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was unlikely to call for restrictions on the live animal trade. A previous government was criticised for suspending cattle exports to Indonesia in 2011.

"Ultimately, we'd like to see a total ban of live export to the Middle East, but that's probably not going to happen," said Ms Katrina Love, a member of Stop Live Exports, which held a protest in Perth on Monday.

However, she said, the government could ban live exports during the months of May to September.

Others have proposed retooling the local economy, which relies heavily on the sheep industry, to focus on butchering animals.

"We will also continue to look at how to encourage more onshore meat processing," said Ms Alannah MacTiernan, Western Australia's Agriculture Minister and a critic of the Turnbull government.

She said the switch to butchering would "get more value out of our livestock and create more jobs in Western Australian abattoirs".

But for Western Australian farmers, a move away from animal exports toward meat production would be disastrous.

"I would go broke, because I totally rely on the live export industry," said Mr Richard Brown, a sheep farmer in the Gascoyne region, about 965km north of Perth. "It's my whole business."

"I didn't like the video," he said, "but it's an isolated incident."

Mr Brown said the state did not have enough slaughterhouses to support a shift to butchering.

Emanuel Exports, the shipping company, has previously come under fire over its treatment of animals.

More than 3,000 sheep died from heat stress in July 2016 while being shipped from Fremantle to Doha. The company's executives were not charged or fined.

In a statement, Mr Nicholas Daws, the director of Emanuel Exports, apologised.

"The footage televised by 60 Minutes is simply devastating," he said, "and Emanuel Exports apologises to farmers and the broader community for these absolutely unacceptable outcomes."