As the world watches on at the 220,000-ton container ship stuck in the Suez Canal, the spotlight is beginning to turn to the emerging reports that at least 20 of the delayed boats are carrying live farmed animal. In a piece written by the Guardian, it is reported that the majority of these delayed livestock ships were loaded with live animals over two-weeks ago, in countries like Spain and Romania. Now, there are mounting concerns that if the delays continue for much longer, these animals could be at risk of starvation, dehydration and injury. The EU coordinator for Animals International, Gerit Weidinger warns that this represents a “ticking biohazard time-bomb for animals and the crew and any person involved”.
The logjam of the Ever Given is exposing a gruesome truth of the animal agriculture industry: live export. The commercial transport of livestock across national borders, or "live export", sees billions of farmed animals transported thousands of miles each year, for fattening or slaughter upon arrival. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the number of animals exported live almost doubled in number between the years 2007-2017, from 1 billion to 1.9 billion animals. And, every day, there are at least 5 million animals in transit.
Unfortunately, live export tragedies are not uncommon and the story emerging from the Ever Given logjam has uncomfortable parallels with the events aboard the Trust1 ship. On 14th September 2016, 13,000 animals died aboard the Trust1 due to delays and inadequate care. This date now marks the first anniversary of the Ban Live Exports International Awareness Day, as established by Compassion in World Farming.
So, why should we be concerned about long distance live animal transport? There are a number of reasons that should alert our concern. In fact, the list seems almost never-ending. From the unsanitary conditions aboard these ships, that place both animals and crew at risk, to the over-crowding and heat stress that lead to the death of thousands of animals. The list goes on: disease, animal welfare, ocean pollution.
100,000 Litres of Excrement
Animals exported live endure long journeys that can last days, weeks, even months. After this length of time at sea, there becomes a significant build-up of animal excrement, and ships are not washed out until arrival at the destination. In one of the most graphic exposés of live export, Animals Australia estimates that more than 100,000 litres of urine and faeces accumulate on a typical live export ship. Animals that need to lie down risk being buried alive in their own excrement. What's more, this build-up of animal matter presents a particular hazard to those humans on board. Of particular concern is the build-up of toxic gases like ammonia than can cause damage to the lungs, brain and central nervous system of humans.
Animals “Cooked to Death”
Animals destined for live export are often packed so tightly that they are unable to sit or lay down. As a result of the overcrowding, it is not uncommon for animals to become severely injured or even trampled to death. Often times, vessels carrying live farmed animals enter into areas of extreme heat and humidity. Aided by the overcrowding, animals often die from such heat stress - they are simply “cooked to death”. In one such tragedy, 2,400 sheep died from heat stress aboard an Emanuel Exports Ship traveling from Fremantle to the Middle East in 2017. As the mortality rate on this ship reached 3.76%, exceeding the accepted 2%, it was subject to review by the Australian Government’s, Department of Agriculture Water and the Enrivonment.According to their report, temperatures in the gulf had reached 36°C and humidity 95%, conditions simply unbearable for anyone, animal or human.
Hotbeds for Disease
The overcrowding and unsanitary conditions on these ships provide a breeding ground for illness and disease which can ravage the animals aboard. The list of common diseases on board these voyages is endless, but include: salmonellosis, conjunctivisis, leptospirosis, septicaemia and pneumonia. Even when a group of animals is not infected, a suspicion of disease alone can be fatal too. Consider the case of two ships, the Karim Allah and the Elbeik that were refused entry at their destination because of concerns that the cattle on board might have been carrying the bovine disease bluetongue. After more than 60 days at sea, both ships were eventually returned to Spain in February 2021, where all 2,650 cattle were slaughtered on arrival.
The outbreak of disease on these ships also pose a risk to human life, both on- and off-board. Live export has seen the outbreak of zoonotic diseases, those that spread from animals to humans, like foot-and-mouth disease, SARS and avian influenza. Indeed, a report published in Nature considers the movement of live pigs between Eurasia and North America a facilitator in the outbreak of the H1N1 influenza A epidemic. As the world struggles to cope with the recent COVID-19 pandemic, experts warn that the animal agriculture industry may pose a major risk for the next potential zoonotic outbreak.
Lack of Legal Protection
When animals are exported, they leave behind any legal protection that they once received in their country of origin, meaning they can be subject to terrible welfare conditions during transport and at the time of slaughter. For example, sow stalls, veal crates and non-stun slaughter are banned in the UK, but once animals leave UK shores, we have no control as to how they will be treated during transport or upon arrival. This means that everything we work for as animal advocates on land, can go to waste, unless we work to ban live export.
A Grave Threat to Marine Wildlife
The export of live animals also has serious consequences for the health of our Oceans. The thousands of animals that die on board the transport ships are often thrown overboard, in order to avoid further overcrowding or disease outbreak. According to the Western Australians for Shark Conservation (WASC) this is thought to have a grave impact on the migratory patterns of sharks. When farmed animals enter the ocean, either as whole carcasses or as bone and blood matter, sharks can enter a frenzied state in the search for blood, distracting them from their typical migration routes. What’s more, the farmed animal waste that accumulates aboard live export ships is so often disposed into the Ocean, polluting the water and marine wildlife.
Like the delays caused by the logjam of the Ever Given, live export ships can so often run into unexpected issues. The Guardian reports that live exports ships are often old and dilapidated, increasing the risk for sinking. Between the years 2019 and 2020, there were two sinking disasters involving animals in transit. In November 2019, more than 14,600 sheep were on ship headed for Saudi Arabia when It overturned and lead to the drowning of 14,000 animals. And, later in September 2020, the Gulf Livestock 1 sank off the coast of Japan, sacrificing the lives of 6,000 animals and 40 crew members.
Is it Time for Change?
It is time for a change on live export. While progress proves slow, there is evidence that it is happening. Three years ago, in India, public protest led to the complete banning of live export making them one of the only countries entirely opposed to live export. What's more, some progress was made in New Zealand last year as they introduced more restrictive requirements on live export, including the banning of live cattle exports and of animals for slaughter but not breeding. This came in the wake of the sinking of the Gulf Livestock1. And, after decades of lobbying and protesting the UK will become the second country to impose a ban on live exports at the end of 2021.
It seems that with intense petitioning, change can and is happening. And, there are so many ways that you can help. You can learn more about live export by visiting Animals Australia and Compassion in World Farming. You can get involved in the global fight against live exports here as well as advocate for change at three crucial times in your day: breakfast, lunch and dinner.