Wandering sheep ship saga ends in Eritrea

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 October, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 October, 2003, 12:00am

After more than 80 days at sea and tortured negotiations with nearly 60 countries, Australia managed to unload an unwanted shipment of 52,000 sheep on the East African nation of Eritrea yesterday.

The long-awaited breakthrough brought to an end an embarrassing standoff that had threatened the future of Australia's A$1 billion (HK$5.45 billion) a year live export industry and attracted condemnation of the so-called 'ship of death' from animal rights activists around the world.

'It's all signed, sealed and delivered,' said a spokesman for Australian Agriculture Minister Warren Truss. 'It's a huge relief.'

Mr Truss said Canberra had negotiated with 57 countries in an effort to sell or give away the sheep. 'Frequently when a deal seemed to be done the arrangements would collapse,' he said.

After being rejected by the original buyer, Saudi Arabia, on health grounds at the end of August, the sheep languished for weeks aboard the Dutch-owned livestock carrier the Cormo Express. More than 5,000 of the original shipment of 58,000 died of heat exhaustion and the rest were enduring increasingly fetid conditions.

The government decided earlier this week to bring the animals back to Australia, where they would have been slaughtered and buried. They were secretly turned around several days ago after a last-minute deal with the government of Eritrea.

Last night they were being unloaded at the Red Sea port of Massawa. Under the deal, Australia has given the sheep to Eritrea at no cost, and donated A$1 million to help with the cost of unloading, transporting and slaughtering the animals.

The government said the total cost of the operation was likely to be more than A$10 million.

The ordeal has prompted an official review of Australia's export trade, which ships 6 million sheep and a million live cattle a year to the Middle East and Southeast Asia.