It was the incident that shot Australia's live export industry into the headlines and provided the public, producers and politicians with their first real insight into the risks inherent to transporting animals by sea.
In early August 2003 the MV Cormo Express, loaded with almost 58,000 Australian sheep, set sail from Fremantle for Saudi Arabia. What unfolded over the following weeks was an animal welfare disaster of such magnitude that it would spark a government review into the whole live export trade and leave Australians questioning how any government could sanction such a cruel and unethical industry.
The incident was also the catalyst for Animals Australia's first live export investigation.
How the Cormo crisis unfolded
A history of rejection
During the years 1989 - 1990, eleven Australian shipments were rejected by Saudi Arabia due to claims of scabby mouth and other diseases. Over 600,000 sheep endured prolonged journeys as they remained on ships outside ports during negotiations or were moved to alternate ports.
One ship, the Mawashi Al Gasseem, was forced to stay on the water for 16 weeks before another country would accept the surviving animals. Statistics were available for only 9 of the 11 ships rejected, but of 602,035 sheep on those ships, 37,179 sheep died.
In January 1991 (then) Minister for Primary Industries, John Kerin, finally halted the trade with Saudi Arabia. Trade resumed in 2000 under a new veterinary protocol which then broke down in 2003, leading to the Cormo Express rejection.
The Keniry Review
Following the Cormo disaster and intense backlash from the community, the government (again) suspended the live trade to Saudi Arabia (though it later resumed in 2005) and commissioned a review into the standards governing livestock export.
The Keniry Review noted that the live trade was 'uniquely and inherently risky' and made key recommendations for reforming the trade:
Deaths at sea
This wasn't the first time the Cormo Express had been involved in a live export shipping disaster. In 1990, 10,000 sheep died on a voyage between New Zealand and the Middle East due to inadequate ventilation causing heat stroke, pneumonia and starvation. Similarly, over 1,000 sheep died on board the Cormo during another voyage to the Middle East in 2002.
Over the past ten years (to 2012), more than 319,000 Australian sheep and over 9,000 cattle have died during export by sea. Sadly, these routine deaths are not unique with the live export trade responsible for a litany of disasters at sea dating back decades.
The cruelty continues
Enduring and surviving the sea voyage is just the first hurdle for millions of animals exported from Australia each year. Since the Cormo disaster a decade ago, investigations in more than a dozen countries have revealed the routine cruel treatment that awaits animals in importing countries — places with either no animal protection laws or negligible enforcement of inadequate standards. Ongoing Australian export industry and Government investment in importing countries has done little to alter these cruel practices.
Animals Australia's 2011 investigation, revealing brutal slaughter practices in Indonesia, led to a major overhaul of live export trade standards. A new system of regulation finally makes exporters accountable for the treatment of animals throughout their supply chains (feedlots and abattoirs in importing countries).
But this new system hasn't prevented extreme cruelty, as it was promised to do. It could not prevent the rejection of sheep on the Ocean Drover in Bahrain and then the frenzied massacre of those 20,000+ Australian sheep in Pakistan in 2012 — which saw the distressed sheep being clubbed, beaten and buried alive. Even government officials have admitted that such a disaster could be repeated “in any of our markets” because no level of regulation gives Australia ultimate control over our animals in other countries.
The Good News
This is an industry in decline. While the live trade continues for now, our investigations and the voices of hundreds of thousands of Australians lobbying on behalf of these animals has forced greater accountability and scrutiny on live exporters. They no longer operate in the shadows. They are no longer a law unto themselves.
The truth about live export has been revealed and as a result more and more politicians are realising that live export doesn't make sense — ethically or economically.
Please continue to show your support for an end to live export by contacting your MP today.