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Live animal export is one of the single greatest threats to animal welfare. Every year, billions of animals are crammed into cargo holds, and many don't make it out alive.
Words by Nimisha Agarwal
The growing demand for meat and other animal products has led to an exponential rise in the export of live animals. Every year, billions of animals are crammed in ships and trucks on their way to slaughter. Onboard, animals face soaring temperatures and crowded unsanitary conditions. Many animals succumb to stress and disease and die before they reach their final destination. To understand the magnitude of the problem, it is important to understand how many animals die from live export and the conditions that cause this to happen.
There are many justifications given for exporting live animals. For countries that do not have enhanced breeding technology, live cattle exports help improve dairy production by making use of better genetics. However, the majority of live animal exports are slaughtered for meat. This is due, in part, to the demand for “freshly killed” meat. Live animal export is also one of the classic examples where profit trump welfare concerns, allowing producers to take advantage of lower production costs in other countries.
Exporting live animals also allows countries to pass on the requirement of land, water, and other resources that accompany farmed animals. Other industries, particularly recreational fishes, wild animals, and companion animals, also thrive on live animal export. Live animal export happens for religious reasons too, as millions of people around the world require live animals for halal or kosher meat.
The animals are primarily exported for slaughter and breeding, dairy production, and companion animal markets. According to data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the livestock animals most commonly exported are buffaloes, ducks, chickens, goats, sheep, turkeys, and pigs. Mules, asses, camels, and horses are also exported for their meat and as transport. Rabbits and rodents are also exported and used for scientific experiments. To date, about 101,989,345 beehives have been exported live for honey production.
The number of animals transported for entertainment and other purposes are so staggeringly high that the only measurement available is their market value, at $871,021,000. Live insects, reptiles, ostrich, antelope, deer, reindeer, and chamois are also transported for their meat, according to UN Comtrade data. These are just the numbers on live animals exported across borders—live animal transport also happens within state borders, usually from the farm to the slaughterhouse.
Live animal export raises significant concerns for the animals, the environment, and the humans working in the industry, as well as those consuming animal products. Disease outbreaks are common, as animals are routinely infected with salmonella and E.Coli during transport. Both of these diseases can lead to food poisoning in humans. The trade and the nature of confinement can increase the spread of disease around the world.
Live animal exports are also susceptible to high levels of toxic gases like ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, and carbon dioxide, mainly due to the animals and their excrement being in the same place for a long period. These gases are harmful to both humans and fellow animals on board. Among other things, ammonia can cause damage to the lungs, brain, and central nervous system in humans.
On longer journeys, workers are often on their own, without any insurance and with minimal safeguards. Incidents are not uncommon, and many transport ships have sunk with humans and animals on board. Many injuries suffered by the crew are left untreated and without proper medical attention, the smallest of problems often turn into life-threatening conditions.
Live animal export also has serious environmental consequences. Thousands of animals who die on transport ships are dumped overboard, either due to overcrowding or disease outbreaks. The blood can impact the migratory patterns of sharks, who are very sensitive to its scent. The waste produced by animals is also dumped into the ocean, polluting the water and threatening coastal communities.
Birds and reptiles sold in the exotic pet trade are also leading to global biodiversity loss. Moreover, most of this trade happens under the radar, making it harder for scientists to map the extent of a species’ extinction. Fishes also suffer during transport. The popular trade of clownfish, also known as the Nemo fish, has led to the depletion of the species in the wild. The increased demand for exotic fishes from coral reefs has also done its part to further threaten delicate coral reef ecosystems.
It is also important to note that live animal export also supplies wet markets. Wet markets are hotbeds for disease and are still thriving all around the world. And while wet markets have been most commonly associated with China since the onset of COVID-19, reports have shown the presence of live markets in the United States and around the world.
Data from investigations by animal rights groups and reported incidents have given some insights into how many animals die during transport. However, the data is inconclusive and does not cover many regions. One of the primary reasons is because many countries do not require such incidents to be reported. Many countries only require so when human fatalities are involved.
The Department of Agriculture recorded that among the mortality rates of voyages that had shot to the reportable level, two consignments of cattle to Vietnam in 2019 had mortality rates of 2.87 percent and 1.19 percent respectively, much above the reporting rate of 0.5 percent. Another consignment to China reported a mortality rate of 1.36 percent. The causes of death were found to be diseases, stress, and leg injuries. Data from previous years also shows the mortality rate for cattle consignments, often to the same countries, raising serious questions on compliance to measures despite repeated violations. The same data also reports the death of 14,182 sheep on consignments. The primary reasons for these deaths were heat stress and injury.
Heat stress can be prevented, but that means reducing the number of animals on the transport vessel, which implies a reduction in profits. Because of this, many animals get cooked alive and succumb to the soaring temperatures and claustrophobia. Many vessels that carry the animals are also not in the best condition to do so but are nevertheless used to charter long journeys. This was one of the primary reasons for the death of more than 14 thousand sheep when a ship overturned off the coast of Romania.
While legal, live export is regulated in many countries, at least on paper. India is one of the few countries where live animal export for livestock is banned. England and Wales, in the backdrop of Brexit also recently announced that by the end of 2021, live animal exports for slaughter and fattening would be banned. New Zealand has permitted live animal exports, primarily of cattle, sheep, deer, and goats, but only after seeking exemption from the government. Countries like the U.S. are far from banning live animal exports, and data available with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization from 2019 shows that live animal exports originating from the U.S. were worth $705,142,300.
The main problem with exporting live animals is that when living beings are treated and designated as stocks or objects, it becomes difficult to understand and account for their rights and welfare. The key issues that animals face are mental stress, heat stress and dehydration, disease, injury, and discomfort caused by being transported in unnatural conditions.
Journeys across countries are long, often spanning over a month. Animals spend over a thousand hours crowded into the ship’s hold, unable to express themselves or seek relief. There is no space to even lie down and sleep, and lack of space allowance alone leads to sickness and death. There is no bedding provided, nor is the space kept clean. Excrement stains the sides of the ship, and animals are often trampled, their faces and bodies forced onto the filthy ground.
Onboard cargo ships and in the back of transport trucks, there is no air conditioning. Soaring temperatures stress the animals’ immune systems, as they are surrounded by feces for days. When the excrement forms into thick manure, it causes animals to get stuck and dying of starvation. There are not enough vets to care for the huge number of stressed out, sickly animals on board.
For most animals, this is not the end of the journey. Once they arrive at their destination, they are hauled onto a truck on the way to their final destination—either to be slaughtered or used for milk, entertainment, or research. The unfamiliar sights, sounds, and movements of frequent loading and unloading cause animals severe mental distress. Animals are often not able to digest the artificial pellets, which are a substitute for grains and a pasture-based diet. In some extreme cases, animals have “cooked to death,” unable to deal with the environmental heat stress experienced during transport.
Even though many countries prevent pregnant animals from being transported, this rule is not always adhered to. As a result, babies are born in a cramped environment that is both physically and mentally toxic. Many do not make it.
Live animal export is also susceptible to physical violence. Investigations uncovered that calves being exported live for veal were jumped on, hit in the face, and beaten up. On top of the mental stress, starvation, and hydration, being physically beaten is also part of the journey.
Live animal export has many repercussions that have a long-lasting negative impact on the animals and humans involved, as well as the environment. However, there is a silver lining. These industries will only thrive if people continue to support them. In other words, by amplifying the reality of these industries, we can empower people to make more ethical food choices on a daily basis.
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