Live Export

Australia exports over three million live animals every year. Cattle, sheep and goats are shipped long distances in conditions which result in illness and death for a significant number.

Australia exports over three million live animals every year.1 Cattle, sheep and goats are shipped long distances in distressing conditions which result in illness2 and death for a significant number.3 They are often slaughtered in countries which lack adequate protections against animal cruelty.4

Five welfare Issues

  1. Animals shipped live from Australia can be confined on vessels for up to three weeks – that is 504 consecutive hours of high temperatures and poor ventilation.9

  2. 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.10

  3. 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.11  

  4. Animal waste generates ammonia gas which, in high concentrations on board ships, can irritate the animals’ eyes, nasal cavities and respiratory tracts, resulting in lacrimation (crying), coughing and nasal discharge.12 Sheep have shown a clear aversion to ammonia13 and tests have shown that it adversely affects the welfare of steers.14

  5. Tens of thousands of animals die every year in transit.15 The live export industry argues that it is achieving good welfare outcomes because these animal deaths are a small proportion of the total shipped.16 Twenty thousand animals die at sea from disease or injury each year.17  Mortality rates do not reflect morbidity. Many more animals are likely to suffer diseases and poor states of welfare.



Numerous exposes, investigations and reports by whistle-blowers such as Dr Lynn Simpson have brought to light incidents of death, cruelty and suffering on board live export ships and at ports of disembarkment in recent years. 

Perhaps the most well-known was broadcast by ABC’s Four Corners with revelations that Australian cattle were subject to gross cruelty in Indonesian abattoirs. The majority of live cattle exported from Australia are sent to Indonesia, with more than 6.4 million shipped there over the 20 years prior to this exposé.18 The program aired footage which filmed 50 slaughters in 10 different locations.19 Analysis of the recordings by the Chief Scientist of RSCPA Australia, Dr Bidda Jones, showed that:

  • “Painful handling techniques, such as the use of physical force (poking, hitting, kicking, tail twisting) to move animals were observed in 90% of locations.”20
  • “Techniques that cause extreme pain and injury (eye gouging, tail bending or breaking and tendon slashing) were used when difficulties arose moving or handling animals.”21
  • Cattle were restrained for slaughter using ‘Mark 1’ boxes, which contravene OIE [World Organisation for Animal Health] standards22 and “inherently result in extreme distress and, in some cases, physical injury”.23 The installation of these boxes was subsidised by $1.2 million in Australian taxpayer funds.24
  • It took an average of 11 cuts to the throat and a maximum of 33 to slaughter fully conscious cattle.25
  • The breadth of the investigation strongly suggested that these cruelties were “reflective of the treatment of Australian cattle in general in that country.”26

Within days of the program airing, hundreds of thousands of Australians called for a ban on live export by signing a petition,27 attending public rallies28 and inundating politicians with emails, letters and phone calls.29 The Federal Government suspended the trade to Indonesia in June 201130 before resuming it just one month later.31 Two bills opposing live export were put before Parliament without success32 and the Government confirmed that it was “committed to supporting the continuation of the livestock export trade.”33


The longest journey

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.” 6

Before animals board a ship, they 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.7 These stresses can cause dehydration, bruising and salmonellosis in sheep and respiratory disease in cattle.8


In an attempt to regulate the welfare of Australian animals in destination markets, the Government implemented the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System (ESCAS). Requirements include transport, handling and slaughter which comply with OIE welfare standards, control and traceability through the supply chain and independent auditing.34

While ESCAS may seem to provide animal protection and accountability, there are issues such as 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.38 And, it does not apply to the export of breeder animals such as dairy cows.39

  • In February 2012, when ESCAS was already in place for Indonesia, Australian cattle were shown to be cruelly treated in two of that country’s slaughterhouses. Up to 46 different breaches of ESCAS were identified.40
  • In August 2012, an Australian ship carrying approximately 21,000 sheep was blocked from unloading in Bahrain after local authorities claimed that the animals had scabby mouth disease.41 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.42 Eventually the sheep were unloaded in Pakistan under a new ESCAS approved specifically for this shipment.43

It was later reported that around 9,000 of the sheep had been killed by order of the Pakistani Government, which also suspected that the animals were diseased.44 A recording of their slaughter showed brutal treatment45 “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.”46 The Australian Government tried to intervene and stop the cull but, despite its efforts, all of the remaining  12,000 sheep were eventually killed.47

  • In September 2012, it was reported that Australian sheep were being inhumanely slaughtered in Kuwait’s Al Rai market which is banned by ESCAS. Footage appeared to show one sheep being clumsily killed with up to 24 cuts to the throat.48 Another investigation reported in January 2013 that Australian sheep continued to be sold at the market.49

Most of these incidents were not detected through the Government’s own monitoring and only came to light through investigations by the charitably funded group, Animals Australia. 


Public Concern

A 2012 survey found that 78 per cent of Australians believed live exports were cruel – a majority consistent with another poll from 2011 – and 74 per cent were more likely to vote for a political candidate who promised to end live animal export.50

“The paramount consideration must now be the ethical one. The live export trade as currently carried out is indefensible. It must stop,” argues Voiceless Patron and former High Court Justice, the Honourable Michael Kirby AC CMG.51

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Updated September 2018