A so-called 'ship of death' carrying more than 50,000 unwanted sheep - of which 5,000 have already perished - is on its way from the Gulf back to Australia after more than 10 weeks at sea. After a series of delays and intensive negotiations, the government ordered the Cormo Express livestock transporter to head from Kuwait to the Cocos Islands, a remote Australian territory in the Indian Ocean south of Sumatra. The ship's return marks the apparent failure of the government to find a buyer for the sheep after they were rejected on health grounds by Saudi Arabia, their original destination, at the end of August. Authorities in Riyadh refused to accept the sheep, saying some were suffering from a disease called scabby mouth - a charge which Australia vigorously contests. Australia offered to sell the sheep or even give them away to 25 countries in the region, but was unable to find any takers. Farmers are opposed to the sheep being returned to the Australian mainland because they say the animals could have been infected with foot-and-mouth or other diseases from fodder taken on board in the Gulf. They have joined animal welfare groups in calling for the sheep to be put out of their misery and slaughtered at sea. But the government says killing the sheep at sea is impractical. 'What would be required to slaughter them at sea would not only be graphically horrendous, it would also raise very serious environmental considerations,' Australian Prime Minister John Howard said. 'It would also take a very long time - it could take 40 or 50 days on some estimates.' Once the sheep reach the Cocos Islands in about 10 days they are likely to be kept offshore while the Cormo Express takes on more feed. The islands, a tropical paradise of white beaches and coconut plantations, are a popular holiday destination and islanders are adamant that the sheep should not be allowed off the Cormo Express.