Live Export

Every year, around three million live animals are exported from Australia for slaughter overseas. Cattle, sheep and goats are shipped long distances in conditions which result in illness and death for a significant number of individuals.

Live export refers to the transport of animals to other countries for slaughter or breeding. Given the sheer distances required to travel overseas and ongoing evidence of animal cruelty, Australia’s live export industry has been under scrutiny for decades.

Professor Clive Phillips, Director of the Centre for Animal Welfare and Ethics at the University of Queensland, explains the incredible length and trials of the live export journey:

“It begins with the mustering of the stock, often on remote properties, and it ends with animal slaughter in the country of destination. In between, the stock will be handled at least a further five or six times and the whole process is likely to last between one and two months. Little is known about the cumulative effects of these combined stresses on the welfare of the animals but it is possible that multiple stressors could make the animals anxious, depressed or enter a phase of learned helplessness.”1

Extensive scientific research shows that significant animal welfare issues are posed before, during and after live export. As demonstrated in the Australian industry, these issues are difficult or impossible to address through regulation. As such, many Australians support an end to live export.

Welfare issues en route

Before boarding a ship or plane, animals may be stressed by food and water deprivation, high stocking densities and high temperatures while being transported by road or rail for up to 50 hours. These stresses can cause dehydration, bruising and salmonellosis in sheep and respiratory disease in cattle.2

Long trips and high temperatures

Once on board an export vessel, animals can be confined for up to a month, which equates to 744 consecutive hours.3

High temperatures and poor ventilation can contribute to fatal heat stroke in cattle, particularly in those breeds whose physiology is ill-suited to hot climates.4

Failure to eat onboard

Sheep are transferred from a pasture-based diet to concentrated pellets – a change which some animals reject. Failure to eat can lead to salmonellosis and even death, with around half of sheep mortalities occurring this way.5

Ammonia gas related health issues

Animal waste generates ammonia gas which, in high concentrations on board vessels, can irritate an animal’s eyes, nasal cavities and respiratory tracts, resulting in crying, coughing and nasal discharge. Sheep have shown a clear aversion to ammonia and tests have shown that it adversely affects the welfare of steers.6

Deaths during transit

Thousands of animals die in transit.7 The live export industry argues that it is achieving good welfare outcomes because these animal deaths are a small proportion of the total number of animals shipped.8 Mortality rates, however, do not reflect morbidity and many more animals are likely to suffer diseases and poor states of welfare.


In recent years, a number of employees (‘whistle-blowers’) involved with Australia’s live export industry have brought to light incidents of cruelty and suffering on board vessels.

Veterinarian – Dr Lynn Simpson

In 2016, former live export veterinarian Dr Lynn Simpson spoke out about her first-hand experience aboard 57 live export voyages and the extreme animal suffering she witnessed.

Her accounts demonstrate ongoing and systemic non-compliance with regulations within the industry.

Dr Simpson was removed from her position after submitting a report detailing the conditions she witnessed on live export ships.

Read more on the Voiceless Blog.

Trainee Navigator – Faisal Ullah

In 2018, trainee navigator Faisal Ullah filmed the conditions on board the Awassi Express live export ship, and released the footage to 60 Minutes and Animals Australia.

The footage depicts overcrowded sheep suffering from severe heat stress, and serious breaches of the regulations relevant to animal welfare.

The evidence provided by each of these whistle-blowers demonstrates the significant regulatory non-compliance by the live export industry, which has encouraged a majority of Australians to push for an end to the industry.

Investigations overseas

Numerous exposes, investigations and reports conducted in destination countries have produced evidence of severe and systemic animal cruelty and welfare issues at ports of disembarkment and overseas destinations.

Case study

In 2011, ABC’s Four Corners program aired revelations that Australian cattle were subject to gross cruelty in Indonesian abattoirs. The majority of live cattle exported from Australia have traditionally been sent to Indonesia, with more than 6.4 million individuals shipped there over the 20 years prior to the exposé.

The program aired footage which filmed 50 slaughters in 10 different locations. Analysis of the recordings by the Chief Scientist of RSPCA Australia, Dr Bidda Jones, showed that painful handling techniques (such as kicking, hitting, eye gouging, tail-breaking and tendon-slashing) were used in 90% of locations, causing severe pain and injury; it took an average of 11 cuts to the throat and a maximum of 33 to slaughter fully conscious animals; and, cattle were restrained for slaughter using ‘Mark 1’ boxes, which “inherently result in extreme distress and, in some cases, physical injury”.9

Although these devices contravene OIE (World Organisation for Animal Health) standards, their installation was subsidised by $1.2 million in Australian taxpayer funds.10

The breadth of the investigation strongly suggested that these cruelties were “reflective of the treatment of Australian cattle in general in that country”11 and within days of the program airing, hundreds of thousands of Australians called for a ban on live export by signing petitions, attending public rallies and inundating politicians with emails, letters and phone calls.12 The Federal Government suspended the trade to Indonesia in June 201113 before resuming it one month later.14


In an attempt to regulate the welfare of Australian animals in destination markets, the Australian Government implemented the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System (ESCAS) in 2011.

Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System (ESCAS)

The ESCAS attempts to improve control and traceability throughout the supply chain, and requires that transport, handling and slaughter complies with OIE welfare standards.15

However, there are a number of fundamental issues impacting on the effectiveness of ESCAS in terms of animal welfare.

For example, ESCAS does not apply to the export of breeder animals such as dairy cows, who are left unprotected during live export.

Further, exporters are not required to disclose important matters of welfare such as the health of animals at loading and unloading or the conditions and method of slaughter.16

Case study

As an example, in August 2012 an Australian ship carrying approximately 22,000 sheep was blocked from unloading in Kuwait and Bahrain after local authorities claimed that the animals had scabby mouth disease.17 The sheep had already been at sea for 33 days and were left on board for almost two weeks longer, suffering in temperatures of up to 38 degrees.18

Eventually the sheep were unloaded in Pakistan, where it was later reported that around 9,000 of the sheep had been killed on suspicion that they were diseased.19

A recording of their slaughter showed brutal treatment: “Like a giant mass of wool, bloodied and filthy, they lay in trenches – slit open, stabbed or clubbed to death, while many still wriggled with some life left in them, soon to be buried alive.”20 The Australian Government tried to intervene to stop the cull but, despite its efforts, all of the remaining sheep were eventually killed.21

Effectiveness of ESCAS

Since 2011, ongoing investigations have revealed the numerous failures of ESCAS in destination countries. These investigations provide significant evidence of breaches22 and the inability to monitor and enforce ESCAS in destination countries, in both approved and non-approved facilities.23

Most of these incidents have not been detected through the Autstralian Government’s own monitoring and instead have come to light through investigations by the charitably funded group, Animals Australia.

Public concern

A 2018 survey commissioned by RSPCA Australia found that around 75 per cent of Australians want an end to live export, a sentiment shared by almost 7 out of every 10 Australians in rural/country areas and towns.24

Multiple bills opposing live export have appeared before Parliament, but are yet to be successfully passed.25 Meanwhile, the Australian Government has repeatedly confirmed that it is “committed to supporting the continuation of the livestock export trade.”26

As argued by Voiceless Patron and former High Court Justice, the Honourable Michael Kirby AC CMG, “The paramount consideration must now be the ethical one. The live export trade as currently carried out is indefensible. It must stop.”27

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Updated February 2019