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Why is the RSPCA opposed to the live export trade?

The export of live sheep, cattle and goats for slaughter gives rise to multiple serious welfare problems. The welfare of these animals is compromised due to the inherently stressful and poor conditions to which they are exposed during the journey itself and the treatment of animals once they reach the importing countries. The main welfare concerns relate to, but are not limited to:

  • transport, handling and holding prior to embarkation
  • stocking densities that prevent animals from comfortably lying down to rest or prevent animals from freely accessing food and water as needed
  • the conditions animals experience onboard ships, which often result in inanition (failure to eat), lameness, infectious diseases, heat stress, respiratory diseases, and death [1, 2]
  • extreme changes in climatic conditions from the farm of origin to the importing country
  • inadequate contingency planning for when animals are rejected at the ports of importing countries due to not being fit for travel
  • poor handling and inhumane slaughter practices in the importing countries. [3]

The RSPCA has a longstanding policy that opposes the export of live animals for slaughter because the trade results in extensive suffering, poor welfare and unacceptable death rates. The conditions that animals are subjected to during live export cannot support what contemporary animal welfare science tells us is acceptable. The welfare of an animal is multifaceted and comprises the physical and mental aspects, as well as the animal’s physiology and functioning, and their interaction and ability to cope with their environment. Together these facets comprise the “Five Domains”, which is a contemporary and widely adopted tool for assessing animal welfare.

The RSPCA has also long opposed the export of live animals because the trade has a very long history of extremely poor animal welfare. There is a history of disasters at sea in which many thousands of animals have died. We have documented the tragic timeline which sadly, will not end until the live export of animals ends. ‘Acceptable’ mortality rates are exceeded on a regular basis and there is little recourse to inhibit exporters from repeating the same issues on other live export journeys.

Farm animals exported from Australia face journeys of up to five weeks from the farm gate to their overseas destination. Prevailing weather conditions and requirements of the importing country can considerably increase the length of the journey. Voyages can subject animals to extreme changes in temperature and humidity, especially during the Middle Eastern summer.

The RSPCA believes that live animals should be slaughtered as close as possible to the point of production to reduce the stress associated with their transport. The trade in live animals from Australia, which requires transporting millions of animals over thousands of kilometres on arduous journeys which can last several weeks, could not be further from this principle.

Once animals reach their port of destination the animals are outside the control of Australian law. The Australian Government cannot ensure that exported animals are slaughtered humanely once they have left Australia. Despite claims by the government and industry that the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System protects Australian animals, the reality is that Australian Government regulation does not have legal effect in foreign jurisdictions. For instance, stunning before slaughter (a process that ensures the animal is unconscious and insensible to pain before being bled out at slaughter) is not a requirement for exported animals. Extensive evidence gathered from importing countries has shown the occurrence of inhumane slaughter and handling practices that would be contrary to Australian laws and standards.

At their destination, exported animals may spend several months at a feedlot for fattening, or may be transported directly to a slaughtering facility. Under Australian Government regulation the animals are not permitted to be sold to individual buyers, however, ‘leakages’ from approved supply chains occur. Animals that are taken outside approved supply chains are exposed to even greater welfare risks. Evidence has shown that individual buyers in some countries will often transport sheep in car boots and on roof racks, in temperatures that may exceed 40°C. To prevent the sheep from moving their legs can be tightly bound together with wire. Cattle have been documented travelling on the back of utility trucks with only a few ropes to prevent them falling off [4].

Sheep have been shown being herded into a slaughtering facility, and then dragged one by one to the slaughtering area where their throats are cut and they are left to bleed to death over a drain. In some importing countries, cattle have been shown to face even more horrific deaths. In slaughtering halls, they have had their tendons slashed and sometimes their eyes gouged to bring them down and, finally, they have their throats cut, often with blunt knives requiring multiple cuts, and are left to bleed to death. Cattle and sheep destined for ‘home slaughter’ are no better off and may face equally cruel slaughter methods.

Even when animals remain in approved supply chains they are still permitted to be slaughtered inhumanely, without prior stunning. In Australia, there are regulations for the slaughter of live animals. Animals intended for slaughter must first be rendered insensible (stunned), then killed before they can regain consciousness. Unfortunately, for live animals transported outside of Australian jurisdiction, it is impossible to ensure humane handling and slaughter. In addition to this, no amount of government regulation can address the significant welfare issues that are inherent to the transport process itself.

The RSPCA believes that due to the inherently stressful nature of exporting live animals, it is not possible for the Five Domains to be fulfilled during export and for these animals to experience good welfare. Instead, the RSPCA advocates for the further development and adoption of a chilled and frozen meat-only trade. This would mean animals are slaughtered in Australia to Australian animal welfare standards, processed at Australian facilities and then their meat exported. The adoption of a chilled and frozen meat-only trade would prevent the suffering inherent in long-distance sea transport and save millions of animals from sustained cruelty.

An independent poll in January 2022, commissioned by the RSPCA, showed that the majority of Australians also want an end to live export. Two thirds of people surveyed said they wanted an end to live export. This is the case whether people live in regional, rural, and remote areas or cities. Quite simply, Australia’s live export trade and the standards it attempts to impose do not reflect the expectations of the Australian public.

If you would like to take action on this issue, please visit our live export campaign pages.


[1] Carnovale F, Phillips C (2020) The effects of heat stress on sheep welfare during live export voyages from Australia to middle east, Animals 10(4) 694.

[2] Moore S, O’Dea M, Perkin S, Barnes A, O’Hara A (2014) Mortality of live export cattle on long-haul voyages: pathologic changes and pathogens, Journal of veterinary diagnostic investigation 26 (2) 252-265

[3] Hing S, Foster A, Evans D (2021) Animal welfare risks in live cattle export from Australia to China by sea, Animals 11, 2862

[4] Animals Australia. Live Export Investigations (accessed on 15 August 2022).

[5] Digital Edge independent omnibus poll, 17 January 2022.


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Updated on November 16, 2022
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