Twenty years ago this week, nearly 70,000 sheep perished when a ship carrying them caught fire in the Indian Ocean, in the world’s worst live exports disaster. Since then, little has changed for the millions of animals worldwide sent on grim journeys overseas - prompting thousands of people in at least 70 countries to lobby their governments, demanding a ban on the trade.
In the first ever global drive against long-distance live transport, campaigners from Canada to Kazakhstan, Israel to Argentina and Sierra Leone to Australia, called on their governments to halt animal exports and instead ship out carcasses.
In London, hundreds of people marched on Westminster to tell MPsthe vote for Brexit means the UK can and must introduce a ban.
Until now, MPs have argued that EU laws meant Britain was prevented from blocking the trade in cattle and sheep. At the last election, only Ukip and the Green Party argued for such a ban.
The campaigners say MPs must act because live exports are one of the world’s biggest causes of animal suffering, with cattle and sheep crammed onto vehicles with insufficient food and water, and so overcrowded that many animals are prevented from lying down; those that do risk being trampled to death.
Animal protectionists had hoped the Indian Ocean disaster in 1996 would mark a turning point in live exports. The cargo ship Uniceb, sailing from Australia to Jordan, burst into flames north of the Seychelles, forcing the crew to abandon ship. The cargo of 67,488 sheep crammed on board were abandoned to die of heat stroke, suffocation, burning or drowning. Since then, a series of other disasters at sea, largely unnoticed by the public, have led to the deaths of tens of thousands of animals.
Even on routine journeys that last for many hours or days, freezing temperatures or heatwave humidity combine with a lack of sustainance to leave animals dehydrated, weak with hunger and exhaustion, and vulnerable to infection. Death rates on lorries are high.
Numbers of such journeys from the UK have fallen in the past decade, but 30,000 are still sent abroad in such conditions each year, many to countries beyond Europe, where laws on welfare at slaughter are less strict or non-existent. Large numbers of British and European sheep and cattle go to north Africa and the Middle East, where they face ritual slaughter for religious festivals, such as the Islamic Eid festival. Slaughter without stunning is considered exceptionally cruel.
Philip Lymbery, chief executive of Compassion in World Farming, the British charity behind the day of action, told crowds at Westminster: “Who’d have thought we would drive the trade down from those appalling highs of 2.5 million animals every year to just tens of thousands? But that’s tens of thousands too many. We are not going away until this shameful, rotten, unnecessary, barbaric and cruel trade is brought to an end.”
Australia is the world’s largest exporter of live animals, trading about three million a year to the Middle East and south-east Asia. Protest rallies were staged in cities including Sydney, Fremantle, Adelaide, backed up by online campaigns in Singapore, Nepal and the Philippines.
Repeated investigations by animal-protection groups over several years have uncovered a host of breaches of welfare legislation, including animals being deprived of food and water and an absence of inspections by vets. Earlier this year, investigators found thousands of cattle, including unweaned calves, are transported thousands of miles from eastern Europe to Israel, Gaza and the Middle East, on rust-bucket vessels, from which animals killed by inhumane conditions are tossed overboard.
Organisers of the worldwide action - coordinated by 46 animal welfare groups globally - say animals should be slaughtered as close to home as possible, with live exports replaced by a trade in meat - “on the hook, not the hoof”.
Protesters at the march to Parliament - some in farm animal masks, carrying banners and placards - chanted and signed petitions.
Many joined in on social media, using the #notfreight hashtag.
Peter Egan, the actor who starred in Downton Abbey and Ever Decreasing Circles, made a short film as part of the anti-live exports campaign.
Celebrities including Evanna Lynch, star of the Harry Potter films, and Joanna Lumley, the actress, have previously joined campaigns against live exports from Britain.
Mr Lymbery said it’s cheaper for exporters to send meat abroad than carcasses but dealers - middlemen - make “pennies” at markets from selling live animals, and that importers are “stuck in a rut”. “We are giving business to continental abattoirs, so the trade is not just horribly cruel, we’re also sending jobs abroad. Middle Eastern countries have the idea that fresher meat is better, but with refrigerated lorries and ships, meat can be exported freshly, he added.
Ian Driver, a prominent campaigner from Ramsgate, Kent, the main port for UK live exports, said he defied anyone to see and smell the trucks crammed with sentient beings and not condemn the trade.
Compassion in World Farming also says ports should be allowed to refused live shipments without fear of prosecution, and that an 1847 law on harbours should be amended to enable this.
Supporters also called on European commissioners to ban live exports to countries outside the EU.