The Cormo Express disaster — 10 years later

October 2013 marks the ten year anniversary of one of the worst live export shipping disasters in Australian history. A decade on and animals continue to suffer and die on these perilous sea voyages.

LAST UPDATED: 8 October 2019

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

  • August 5, 2003: The MV Cormo Express departs Fremantle with almost 58,000 sheep on board.
  • August 20: Importing country, Saudi Arabia, rejects the shipment of sheep on alleged disease grounds (scabby mouth) and refuses to unload them. The live trade to Saudi Arabia is suspended in light of the rejection.
  • Late August: The Australian government purchases the sheep from the Saudi Arabian importer and scrambles to find a country to accept the sheep — to no avail.
  • October 6: A mechanical breakdown and fire occur on the ship while it is restocking fodder in Kuwait, causing further delay.
  • October 24: After more than 30 countries declined to import the sheep, they are finally unloaded (some 79 days after leaving Australia) in a hastily renovated feedlot in Eritrea, along with a payment of $1 million in aid from our government and 3,000 tonnes of feed.  By this point, nearly 6,000 sheep have died onboard.
  • November 1: The Australian government orders a review into live animal export (conducted by Dr John Keniry).
  • November 24:  Animals Australia investigators spend 8 days in the Middle East documenting the unloading, transport and slaughter of Australian sheep — this is Animals Australia’s first live export investigation and provides the first independent assessment of the treatment animals face in importing countries.
  • December 23: Keniry review into live export released — a number of recommendations are made, including the establishment of Government-to-Government Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) with importing countries to ensure animals are unloaded regardless of disputes. MoUs are subsequently put in place.
  • August 21, 2012: Bahrain rejects 22,000 sheep on board the Wellard ship, the Ocean Drover, ignoring its obligations to unload as agreed in the MoU with Australia. The system fails in its first big test and the consequences for animals are tragic — they are eventually killed in a brutal massacre over a number of weeks in Pakistan.

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:

  • The adoption of national standards for the preparation and shipping stages of  livestock exports — now called the Australian Standards for the Export of Livestock (ASEL)  - Accepted
  • Government to assume control of granting export licences and enforcing compliance with the new standard for livestock exports — thereby replacing LiveCorp/industry accreditation  - Accepted
  • Having veterinarians who prepare animals for export directly contracted by and accountable to AQIS (the then relevant Government Department) — REJECTED — these (accredited) veterinarians are still chosen by, paid for and report directly to the exporter
  • The presence of a veterinarian on board all live export voyages where journey is longer than 10 days, and who reports directly to AQIS — Accepted with modification: vets only on shipments that are considered high risk, which in practice includes all Middle East ports and most other long voyages.
  • The continuation of industry investment in research and development programs, with exports to be banned if research shows predictably high risk factors — Accepted with modification: recommending upgrading of facilities and practices to reduce risks.
  • The establishment of a quarantine holding facility in the Middle East before further shipments resume to Saudi Arabia — Accepted:  Government moves to establish Memorandums of Understanding with each ME importing country to include agreement to offload into a quarantine feedlot in the event of any dispute.
  • The creation of a national response system to respond to any future live animal export emergencies — Accepted

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.

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