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Australia Investigates After 2,400 Sheep Die On Ship To Qatar

A whistleblower captured footage from five voyages of the Awassi Express.
Animals Australia
A whistleblower captured footage from five voyages of the Awassi Express.

The Australian government has ordered a review of its lucrative sheep export trade after some 2,400 sheep died last summer on a ship headed to Doha, Qatar.

Video of sheep gasping and dying in sweltering temperatures was captured by a whistleblower on board the Awassi Express, and aired by 60 Minutes Australia on Sunday.

"I was absolutely shocked and gutted," Australia's Agriculture Minister David Littleproud told ABC. "This is the livelihoods of Australian farmers that are on that ship. That is their pride and joy."

On Tuesday, Littleproud said he had ordered the review into the summer trade of livestock, ABC reported. He said part of the problem is that "the industry hasn't had the cultural parameters that they should have had."

The ship that was the subject of the alarming report, the Awassi Express, "is currently docked in Fremantle, in Western Australia, awaiting a load of more than 60,000 sheep," according to the broadcaster.

Nicholas Daws, the director of the company Emanuel Exports, described the August 2017 sheep deaths as "heartbreaking for our company and the producers whose livestock we export."

He said in a statement that the company is taking measures to address the problem in the new shipment, including carrying a load that is 17.5 percent smaller.

Part of the issue last summer, according to the Australian Livestock Exporters' Council, is that Qatar was the first stop because it was blacklisted by other Gulf Cooperation Council countries, meaning that the animals experienced hotter temperatures when there were more of them on board. The company says it is able to stop in Kuwait first this time.

60 Minutes Australia obtained the footage of the animals dying from whistleblower Faisal Ullah, who was a trainee navigator on the ship during multiple voyages. The investigative reporting program stated that after years of attempting to get a closer look at the secretive live animal export industry, this is the first time they've had a clear view of what's happening on board.

The footage shows the animals shoulder-to-shoulder, wading through a rising level of urine and feces. As they near the Middle East during the summer, the temperature grows unbearable.

"They just died in front of us," Ullah said. "Just one by one. One after another. ... It is as same as putting animals into the oven. I mean, you are just putting live animals into the oven."

An investigation into the August 2017 incident by Australia's Department of Agriculture found that 2,400 sheep died, primarily due to heat stress. That includes 880 on a single day. And 195 sheep are unaccounted for, potentially increasing the death toll.

Animal rights advocates rallied in Perth on Monday, calling for an end to the practice of live exports, according to The New York Times.

"Ultimately we'd like to see a total ban of live export to the Middle East, but that's probably not going to happen," Katrina Love, a member of the advocacy group Stop Live Exports, told the Times. She added that the group is pushing specifically for an end to the practice in May through September, where hotter temperatures are more difficult for the animals.

The local industry in Western Australia is set up primarily for the live export business, rather than butchering animals in the area, according to the Times.

The Western Australian Farmers Federation said it welcomes a review of the export industry and wants to see independent inspectors on board the ships.

"Like most, I had accepted the assurances that guidelines and protocols were being met; that arrangements were in place and that adequately ensure compliance of our 'best practice, standards and guidelines', however this is clearly not the case," WAFarmers President Tony York said in a statement.

He added: "We feel very strongly that if conditions cannot be managed then a ship must not be allowed to sail with our livestock on board, so we welcome any announcement into reviews and changes that would support this condition and that would see confidence restored in the industry."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Merrit Kennedy
Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.