Georgian officials deny disease outbreak ever occurred
TBILISI, Georgia––How many sheep were casualties of a botched pre-Ramadan live transport from the nation of Georgia to Saudi Arabia and Jordan in late May 2015?
The authentic toll might never be known.
Exported for ritual sacrifice, the sheep instead fell ill in transit, were refused at several ports, and reportedly died in large numbers upon return to Georgia.
Whether the botched transport contributed to a subsequent deadly sheep disease outbreak in Georgia might also never be known.
Georgian officials claim no such outbreak occurred. Yet the disease outbreak reportedly touched off an insurrection of sorts among some Georgian shepherds, and brought international notice to the previously obscure but apparently fast-growing traffic in sheep from Central Asia to the Middle East.
Why sheep are sacrificed
Ramadan, the Islamic holiday marking the end of a month of fasting during daylight hours, is to be observed next on June 18-19, 2015. Sheep and other animals are slaughtered at Ramadan in high volume, as at Eid-al-Adha, also known as the Feast of Atonement, but the Ramadan slaughter has less direct ritual significance, and more resembles the annual slaughter of lambs for Easter and turkeys for Thanksgiving in the U.S. than does the Eid-al-Adha slaughter.
The Eid-al-Adha slaughter, next to occur on September 24-25, 2015, commemorates the story of Abraham and Isaac, or Abraham and Ishamel, as described in the Q’ran, the Hebrew Torah, and the Christian Bible.
According to the story, God as a test of faith commanded Abraham to sacrifice his first-born son, who is not named in the Q’ran. In the Sunni Islamic tradition, the son is believed to have been Ishmael, Abraham’s son by his wife Sarah’s servant Hagar, but in the Shi’ite Islamic tradition was Isaac, his son born to Sarah six months later, as is also the case in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Whichever son was to be sacrificed, when Abraham moved to obey, God sent a ram to be sacrificed instead.
Islamic tradition is that at Ramadan each male head of household who can afford to make a sacrifice is to sacrifice an animal, most often a sheep, and distribute the meat to family and the poor.
Mohammed denounced cruelty & excess
Even the Islamic prophet Mohammed himself spoke out against excessive and ostentatious sacrifice at Ramadan and Eid-al-adha, as well as cruelty to animals in transport and slaughter, and authorized making sacrificial gifts of money or goods other than freshly killed meat.
In recent years many predominantly Islamic nations have sought to reduce the numbers of animals killed, and to ensure that the killing observes the halal rules prescribed by Mohammed.
Nonetheless, amateurish public Ramadan and Eid-al-Adha slaughters of sheep occur at Ramadan throughout the Islamic world, most prominently in Saudi Arabia, where public amateur sheep slaughter is also practiced to commemorate completion of the haj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, that devout Muslims traditionally make at least once in their lifetime.
Sheep from Down Under
Historically, most of the sheep killed at Ramadan, Eid-al-adha, and for the haj were raised close to wherever they were slaughtered. In the late twentieth century, however, the advent of motor vehicles and jet travel vastly increased the numbers of pilgrims making the haj. Simultaneously the populations of major cities in the Middle East and other majority Islamic nations grew far faster than local animal husbandry production capacity.
Responding to rising demand, Australia and New Zealand developed live sheep and cattle export industries on an unprecedented scale. But as animal welfare concerns and political controversies emerged in connection with the live shipments, the livestock supply from Australia and New Zealand was often disrupted, especially after the Persian Gulf War of 1990-1991.
New Zealand halted live exports entirely in 2003, in favor of building trade in frozen carcasses.
Over the past dozen years much of the demand for live sheep and cattle in the Islamic world has shifted to purchasing frozen meat. But much of the Islamic world still has limited access to electricity and refrigeration, and the tradition of Ramadan and Eid-al-adha sacrifice by heads of households has persisted even where refrigeration is readily available.
Australia still exports about three million live sheep and cattle per year, chiefly for Ramadan, Eid-al-adha, and haj slaughter, in competition with other nations that have entered the live export trade.
Among those nations are Russia and China––and Georgia, a small nation located between Russia, Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.
Georgia until 1991 was part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. While Georgia has opened to the outside world somewhat since the Rose Revolution of 2003 and the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, it is still a relatively closed society, with no strong animal welfare sector, no animal legislation, and few independent news media monitoring animal issues.
Threat of roadblock
On May 28, 2015, however, Democracy & Freedom Watch, a Tbilisi-based independent news web site, took note of a disruption in the sheep trade.
“Locals in Uplistsikhe, in Georgia’s Kartli region, threaten that they will block the central highway near Gori because sheep returned from Jordan are dying from an unknown disease,” Democracy & Freedom Watch reported.
“Teo Tlashadze, a member of the local council in Gori, told Interpress News that tens of thousands of sheep were sent to Jordan a few weeks ago, but were rejected for unclear reasons. The sheep were then returned. Farmers now claim their sheep are infected with a disease and that thousands of them have died.
“Tlashadze said a few days ago that the sheep have been examined, but people don’t know the results yet,” the Democracy & Freedom Watch account elaborated. “People are in panic because tens of thousands of sheep died, and they had to bury the sheep in pits.”
Taking note of the incident, which as described suggested a rapidly spreading outbreak of a highly contagious ailment, Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases animal disease and zoonoses moderator Arnon Shimshony posted to ProMED-mail, “The accurate numbers of sick/dead animals, the morbidity/mortality percentages, and their relevance to the travel history of the animals are in need of clarification.
“What are the clinical symptoms/post mortem findings? What are the age, breed, and gender of the susceptible population and of the affected animals? Are these males (for immediate slaughter/fattening), breeding female animals, otherwise, or mixed? Were any medical treatments applied prior or during the travel, such as drenching, spraying, or vaccinations? What were the dates of export/import? The mode of transportation? Density on vehicles? Reason of rejection? Last but not least: What was the diagnosis?!”
Most of Shimshony’s questions remain unanswered, despite the best efforts of ANIMALS 24-7 and a global network of animal welfare organizations concerned with live transport to find answers.
Overland, or by sea?
Answers appeared most likely to emerge from discovering how the sheep were moved––by land, or by sea?
Finding that out would shed light on how many sheep were involved, and to what extent they might have had the opportunity to infect others.
A land route would most likely have crossed Turkey, Armenia, or Azerbaijan; Syria; and Lebanon, an arduous multi-day journey by truck, with much possible exposure to other animals along the way. Land transportation, however, would have involved only a small fraction as many sheep per truck as transport by sea.
“Over the last two years we are aware of both land and sea shipments from Jordan to Lebanon and Turkey to Lebanon, both cows and sheep, and there have also been cases of sea shipments being rejected in other countries and they then end up here,” offered Jason Mier of Animals Lebanon.
“The trade through Syria is ongoing,” Mier continued. “There was a European Union Technical Assistance & Information Exchange workshop here in Beirut a couple months ago that we were part of, and this was discussed. The conversation was about truck design to improve animal welfare and difficulties at borders.”
Probably shipped from Batumi
Animals Angels founder Christa Blanke, however, believed from her long experience in monitoring live animal shipments from Europe to the Middle East that the sheep were most likely exported from Georgia and returned through either Batumi or Poti, the two principle Georgian ports on the Black Sea.
Affirmed Lyn White of Animals Australia, “It’s likely the sheep were shipped all the way, rather than trucked across land.”
White, a former police officer, has since 2003 repeatedly directed undercover video operations that have documented mistreatment of Australian sheep and cattle, as well as other livestock, at facilities in Egypt, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Jordan, and Indonesia.
Reported White a few days later, after making inquiries, “It was a Hijazi & Ghosheh shipment––the Jordanian company we have been reporting for breaches of Australian regulations constantly for the past two years. I haven’t been able to determine which ship was involved. Normally these smaller ships that do the run from the Mediterranean carry around 10,000 sheep.”
Word from within Georgia
Networking further, ANIMALS 24-7 was told by a well-placed source within Georgia that “The reason for mass sickness and death was improper care. The sheep went through a 21-day quarantine when they were not properly fed. Further, they were transported in the hold of the ship, in a very congested manner and again without feeding.”
The cargo was rejected first by Saudi Arabia. “Most probably the Saudi rejection of the sheep was due to the bad condition of the flock,” the source said. “The sheep were transported back,” apparently after also being rejected at the Jordanian port of Aquaba, “in the same conditions. Laboratory checks of corpses by the Georgia Ministry of Agriculture ascertained that sheep had no diseases,” the source continued, “and this is released as official information. I personally do not think that they are lying.”
Of the 13,000 sheep in the shipment, 250 died, according to the Georgia Ministry of Agriculture, or less than 2%. That would have been a relatively normal loss rate, not a loss of an order likely to produce the concern that followed.
“Samples did not confirm disease”
“Samples sent to the laboratory on 29 May 2015 did not confirm disease or infection,” ANIMALS 24-7 was told. “Unfortunately, there is no animal welfare act in our country and animal welfare is just a meaningless definition which is not underpinned by the law and subsequent procedures. Georgia has not joined the European Convention on the transportation of farm animals, despite repeated appeals to the Committee of Euro Integration in the Georgian Parliament.”
Affirmed the Georgian Business & Political Insight Information Analytical Portal on May 29, 2015, “According to Georgia’s National Food Agency, laboratory tests could not confirm the involvement of an infectious agent in the sheep mortality. The agency’s specialists are of the opinion that the lambs suffered from their lengthy transportation without proper maintenance conditions and feeding, violating the required terms of maintenance during this period. Specialists continue to control the situation at the request of the National Food Agency.”
What really happened?
But the official explanations, while perhaps plausible for the sheep who were actually shipped and returned, did not explain the alleged spread of disease within Georgia after the returned sheep were landed, which according to the Democracy & Freedom Watch report afflicted “thousands.”
Was the Democracy & Freedom Watch report inaccurate, or did the returned sheep in fact spread a disease when returned to Georgia––or was there a separate and concurrent outbreak of a deadly sheep disease?
If the “locals at Uplistsikhe” did threaten to block the Gori highway, as Gori council member Teo Tlashadze described to Democracy & Freedom Watch, there was presumably a reason for it.
“It seems that if ‘thousands’ were affected, someone would know,” the Tbilisi source said. “On the other hand, that could damage the sheep industry both internally and in future export––so there would be good reason to keep it quiet. Whatever happened, we may never know.”
Wrote Shimshony of ProMED, on June 1, 2015, “Unless new information confirms a disease, it may be concluded that the recorded deaths were caused by lengthy transportation under unsatisfactory conditions, to say the least.
“The alleged rejection of the consignment in Saudi Arabia and Jordan,” Shimshony recalled, “is reminiscent of several earlier events leading to sheep suffering sickness and mortality following their rejection at Middle East destinations. The most recent event of large proportions was related to a consignment of Australian sheep which was rejected in the fall of 2012 in Bahrain, ending up in Pakistan.”
The Bahrain-lessness of 2012
That event, perhaps the most notorious and egregious in the history of Australian live export, ended when the Livestock Department of the state government of Sindh, Pakistan on October 20, 2012 killed the last of 22,000 sheep who were shipped from Fremantle, Australia to Bahrain on August 4, 2012 aboard the Wellard Rural Exports transporter Ocean Drover.
Intended to be sold for Ramadan slaughter, the sheep were rejected by Bahrain on August 21, 2012, purportedly due to scabby mouth disease, a stress-related affliction similar to a human cold sore, which often develops among sheep on shipboard. The disease is also called “orf.”
Leaving Bahrain, the Ocean Drover sought unsuccessfully to unload the sheep in Kuwait, but Kuwait would not accept the sheep either. Returning to Bahrain, the Ocean Drover sought again to unload in Bahrain, was refused again, and on September 5, 2012 finally left the sheep in Karachi, Pakistan.
Pakistan, a major sheep-producing nation, had never before imported Australian sheep, but was hastily approved as an export destination by the Australian Department of Agriculture, Food, & Forests.
Politics & protectionism
“What happened then is what any sound mind would have predicted,” Lyn White of Animals Australia observed. “The Pakistani media started questioning why their country would take sheep who had been rejected as diseased by another.”
A six-week political battle ensued, driven in part by Pakistani sheep producers trying to protect their markets from foreign competition.
Seeking a politically viable pretext for killing the sheep, Pakistani authorities and media alleged that a wide range of diseases were epidemic among them, but laboratory testing repeatedly contradicted the claims.
“Of the disease agents and entities mentioned [by Pakistani authorities and media] during the evolving event, namely contagious ecthyma (scabby mouth), actinomyces, salmonella, E. coli, anthrax, foot-and-mouth disease, and briefly peste des petits ruminants, only scabby mouth emerged as factual,” assessed Shimshony.
After a series of appeals to various Pakistani courts failed, Karachi Express Tribune reporter Kazim Alam wrote that he was shown a video by the importer, P.K. Livestock, showing ineptly killed sheep, some of whom were apparently buried alive.
“The entire episode has been a display of never-ending incompetence by all concerned,” editorialized The International News, of Karachi and Lahore, including “slaughter by the Sindh Livestock Department in a manner that appears not to comply with religious custom and practice.”
But the Ocean Drover case was neither unique nor even the largest case like it. In many particulars, the Ocean Drover episode echoed the 2003 refusal by both Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to accept a cargo of 57,000 sheep, also allegedly due to orf, who had been shipped from Australia aboard the Cormo Express. About 5,500 of the sheep died during 12 weeks at sea. The surviving sheep were eventually donated to Eritrea.
“After the Cormo Express disaster, the Australian government negotiated agreements with all importing countries that in all circumstances sheep and cattle would be unloaded within 36 hours of docking,” White recounted. “This was the basis on which the live trade restarted, after a suspension, with the associated assertion that such a ‘rejection’ could therefore never happen again.”
Other live shipments come to grief
Other live export cargoes have come to grief during the 2015 pre-Ramadan shipping season. Notably, a small transporter, the KM Asia Raya, caught fire on May 15, 2015 off Semau Island, East Nusa Tenggara province, Indonesia, while hauling 624 cattle, 24 cowherds, and 14 crew. Cowherd Yoseph Haki, 42, and 72 cattle were lost, The Jakarta Post reported. The remaining 552 cattle, cowherds, and crew survived aboard the hulk, which was towed to Tenau, the Jakarta Post said.