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Live animal export cannot continue without strict standards in place

- Lee-Anne Bruce

One week after the High Court ruled sheep may only be exported live by sea under strict welfare standards, they are already being loaded onto a waiting ship

Pending a final ruling, the High Court in Grahamstown has ordered that a reduced number of sheep may be exported live to the Middle East, and has tasked the Department of Agriculture with monitoring that the loading and transport complies with international health and welfare standards. Less than a week later, reports indicate that the loading has begun, and civil society organisations are questioning whether there has been enough time to ensure the proper compliance envisioned by the Court.

On 25 August, the Eastern Cape High Court handed down an order regarding a case that sought to prevent the live export of thousands of sheep from South Africa to the Middle East by sea. The application was brought by the NSPCA against the importing and exporting companies, and raised concerns – shared by the South African Veterinary Association in a recent statement – that these animals would be subject to serious cruelty on this journey. These concerns relate to the high temperatures the animals would be subject to in being transported in sweltering heat, the stress of being land animals at sea, a changed diet, the difficulties of disposing of their waste safely, the condition of sick animals, and many others. Animal Law Reform South Africa (ALRSA) and their representatives at the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS) have been closely following the matter.

Last week, the Court ruled that a reduced number of animals may be loaded onto the Al Messilah ship. It further ordered that the loading and plans for transport must be closely monitored by the Department of Agriculture to ensure compliance with international standards set by the World Organisation for Animal Health (known as the ‘OIE’). These standards are long and detailed and place a number of responsibilities on the exporters and the state. They include, for example, ensuring that:

  • The animals are housed and loaded correctly, including protecting them from adverse weather and minimising stress, by parties competent in the humane handling and care of animals;
  • There are minimum standards set for the welfare of the animals while on board, at the end of the journey and in case of emergencies;
  • There is sufficient equipment and medication on board, including enough facilities, as well as competent handlers and vets;
  • The animals are given time to adjust to a novel diet they will receive on the ship;
  • There is adequate ventilation and space to minimise stress and allow each animal to be observed; and
  • The animals wool length has been considered given the high temperatures and overheating they may face.

Less than a week after the order was handed down, we began to receive reports that the sheep were already being loaded onto the vessel. Given the Department of Agriculture has not had any standards in place and given the onerous nature of the enquiries required by the OIE standards, it is not clear how they could have been complied with in the time that has elapsed since the order was given. Moreover, reports have been circulating that the wool length of the sheep has not been reduced, raising fears that the animals will be subject to severe distress in the sweltering heat of the Persian Gulf. The OIE standards expressly state that ‘wool length should be considered in relation to the weather conditions expected during the transport’.

“It seems almost impossible that the particular standards the Court set could be observed in just one week,” says Prof David Bilchitz, Director at ALRSA and Professor of Law at the University of Johannesburg. “For example, the standards require each individual animal to be inspected to assess their fitness to travel: how could this be done for over 50,000 animals in such a short space of time? The government is also required to have clear and detailed proof of the competence of those looking after the animals on the journey and to set minimum standards for the welfare of animals on the journey. Given the government has not produced guidelines to regulate live transport over several years, after being called upon to do so by civil society organisations, it would be impressive indeed if this could be achieved in such a short space of time.”

“Whilst it is doubtful if this trade can take place in a manner consistent with animal welfare at all, the court order acknowledges the importance of setting welfare standards for the live export of animals,” says Sheena Swemmer, attorney at CALS. “From the reports we have received, we are deeply concerned that the government may allow the transport to proceed without properly exercising its oversight responsibilities to ensure to the best of its abilities that the welfare of animals is respected.”  

ALRSA and CALS call on the state to show transparency in how they are abiding by the court order and ensuring export company Al Mawashi is complying with the OIE standards. Should there be non-compliance with these standards and thus the court order, we call on the state, as it is required to do, to report this to the court and stop the transport, thus preserving the rule of law in our country.

Read the court order here.

Find a copy of the applicable OIE standards here.  

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Animal Law Reform South Africa (ALRSA) is a non-profit organisation that envisages a society whose laws, courts and enforcement agencies advance the protection and well-being of both humans and non-human animals. Utilising the law and related avenues, ALRSA works on intersectional matters to achieve justice for all who require it. Through its main pillars it aims to achieve incremental change for vulnerable beings and ensure that their interests are accounted for in the legal system. Find out more about us at or follow @AnimalLawReform.