Australia Shocked by Death of 2,400 Sheep on Ship to Qatar

PERTH, Australia — The Australian government said Monday that it would investigate the mistreatment of animals after video recently emerged showing thousands of sheep dying from heat stress on board a ship traveling to the Middle East.

David Littleproud, the agriculture minister, said he was “shocked and gutted” by the footage and promised that those responsible would be punished.

The video was apparently taken in August 2017 on a converted car carrier owned by Emanuel Exports, a shipping company based in Perth. The ship, the Awassi Express, was sailing from Fremantle, a port in Western Australian, to Doha, Qatar.

The footage, which was broadcast Sunday on Australia’s “60 Minutes” news program, shows the sheep dying on the decks while rotting corpses are being tossed overboard. More than 2,400 sheep died of heat stress, according to the report.

The video also included images of sheep dying in their own feces.

Approximately 1.4 million sheep raised in Western Australia are herded onto ships each year, and nearly 75 percent of Australia’s annual live animal trade — worth about 1 billion Australian dollars, or about $766 million — comes from the state, according to David Slade, president of WAFarmers Livestock, a trade organization.

Given the live animal trade’s importance to the state, critics said the video was unlikely to result in real change.

Live exports have been “an abject failure,” said Josh Wilson, a member of Parliament from Fremantle and a member of the Labor Party.

“There has been no independent supervision of these ‘death ships,’ and no penalties in relation to the mass death and suffering of sheep,” said Mr. Wilson, who blamed the governing Liberal Party for not adequately regulating the industry.

“I wouldn’t be surprised,” he said, “if the only serious change the exporter has made since this incident is to ban all staff from having smartphones on board.”

Animal activists said the government of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was unlikely to call for restrictions on the live animal trade. A previous government was criticized for suspending cattle exports to Indonesia in 2011.

“Ultimately we’d like to see a total ban of live export to the Middle East, but that’s probably not going to happen,” said Katrina Love, a member of Stop Live Exports, which held a protest in Perth on Monday.

However, she said, the government could ban live exports during the months of May to September.

Others have proposed retooling the local economy, which relies heavily on the sheep industry, to focus on butchering animals.

“We will also continue to look at how to encourage more onshore meat processing,” said Alannah MacTiernan, Western Australia’s agriculture minister and a critic of the Turbull government. She said the switch to butchering would “get more value out of our livestock and create more jobs in Western Australian abattoirs.”

But for Western Australian farmers, a move away from animal exports toward meat production would be disastrous.

“I would go broke, because I totally rely on the live export industry,” said Richard Brown, a sheep farmer in the Gascoyne region, approximately 600 miles north of Perth. “It’s my whole business.”

“I didn’t like the video,” he said, “but it’s an isolated incident.” Mr. Brown said the state did not have enough slaughter houses to support a shift to butchering.

Emanuel Exports, the shipping company, has previously come under fire over its treatment of animals.

More than 3,000 sheep died from heat stress in July 2016 while being shipped from Fremantle to Doha. The company’s executives were not charged or fined.

In a statement, Nicholas Daws, the director of Emanuel Exports, apologized.

“The footage televised by ‘60 Minutes’ is simply devastating,” he said, “and Emanuel Exports apologizes to farmers and the broader community for these absolutely unacceptable outcomes.”