3,000-year-old livestock shipping route opened by Pharoahs is unblocked
ISMAILIA, Egypt––Tens of thousands of sheep, cattle, and other live animals stranded for up to six days aboard more than 20 transport vessels are moving again through the Suez Canal, as of March 29, 2021.
Egyptian Lieutenant General Osama Rabei, heading the Suez Canal Authority, told media that livestock transports are being given priority of passage, ahead of vessels carrying inanimate cargo.
The Suez Canal, linking the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea, had been closed since March 23, 2021, when The Ever Given, a container ship of approximately the dimensions of the Empire State Building if the Empire State Building were to be laid flat on the narrower side, became diagonally wedged in sand bars lining either side of the 80-foot-deep canal.
Owned by Japanese shipping company Shoei Kisen KK, the 247,000-ton Ever Given is operated by Evergreen Marine Corporation, of Taiwan.
Driven aground by high winds
According to Evergreen Marine, the Ever Given was driven aground by high winds, with gusts reaching 31 miles per hour, as it entered the 120-mile Suez Canal from the Red Sea end.
The Ever Given itself was not carrying live animals, but within hours at least eight livestock transporters were among hundreds of ships that were prevented from entering the Suez Canal until the Ever Given can be freed. More livestock carriers joined the backup of as many as 330 ships awaiting passage during the next several days.
Eurogroup for Animals, a consortium representing animal advocacy organizations at the headquarters of the European Union in Brussels, Belgium, told media that “Our member Animals International is closely monitoring the movement of the vessels Jersey, Unimar Livestock, Omega Star, Harmony Livestock, Dragon, Lady Maria, Sea Star Livestock, and Gemma Star.”
Three livestock transports were already in the canal
Disasters involving shipments of live animals from Australia to the Middle East have historically had the highest profile, but Lyn White of Animals Australia told ANIMALS 24-7 that this time, “There were no Australian ships impacted.”
Reported Sophie Kevany and Michael Safi of The Guardian on March 26, 2021, “Georgios Hatzimanolis, a spokesperson for the tracking website Marine Traffic, said while some livestock ships were waiting to enter the canal, three – the Omega Star, the Unimar and the Sea Star – “all appear to be stuck at various points in the canal.”
Gerit Weidinger, European Union coordinator for Animals International, told The Guardian that marine tracking websites indicated the Unimar left Spain on March 15, 2021, bound for Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The Omega Star left Spain a day later, bound for Port Said, Egypt.
These were the two livestock transports that had been at sea the longest.
Running out of food & water
Seven other livestock transports loaded at Cartagena, Spain, and five loaded at Midia, Romania, were also in the Suez Canal queue as of March 26, 2021, along with another half dozen whose particulars were unknown.
The Spanish government within 24 hours of the Ever Given running aground issued an order on effect against loading livestock aboard any other ships with destinations that would require a Suez Canal passage.
All 20 livestock transports known to be in queue, plus any others arriving at the Suez Canal entrances more recently, were delayed in their anticipated passages to various ports mostly located in the Persian Gulf region.
These livestock transports were at risk of running out of food and water for the animals aboard, unless resupplied at sea, having prepared for voyages that are often shorter than the length of time they were held up. Livestock transports typically carry more food and water, however, than is believed to be needed for their voyages, since delays due to weather and backups of ships waiting to be unloaded are relatively common.
“Biohazard time bombs”
“My greatest fear,” Weidinger told The Guardian after the Ever Given became stuck in the canal, “is that animals run out of food and water and they get stuck on the ships because they cannot be unloaded somewhere else for paperwork reasons.
“Getting stuck on board means there is a risk [for the animals] of starvation, dehydration, injuries, and waste build up so they can’t lie down, and the crews cannot get rid of dead animal bodies in the Suez Canal,” making the ships “basically ticking biohazard timebombs for animals and the crews and any person involved,” Weidinger said.
Ten tugboats and two dredges joined the flotilla trying to budge the Ever Given, a task that eventually required moving 27,000 cubic meters of sand and many large rocks from the canal bed.
A complicating factor was that estimates of the weight of the Ever Given have increased by nearly 20% during the time it has been stuck.
Economic impact grabs the headlines
The economic impact of the Ever Given grounding far outstripped media attention to what could have become the worst livestock shipping disaster ever, potentially afflicting more animals aboard more vessels than any of the many previous canal closures due to accidents involving other ships and outbreaks of warfare.
The shipping data and news company Lloyd’s List projected that the Ever Given incident delayed westbound traffic valued at about $5.1 billion a day, and eastbound traffic worth approximately $4.5 billion a day.
Altogether, the Suez Canal normally handles about 12% of all global trade. The canal is able to accommodate 106 vessels per day, according to the World Shipping Council.
For each day the canal is closed, clearing the backup of shipping traffic typically takes two days.
Clearing the current backup is expected to take until late during the first week of April 2021, if there are no further complications.
Pharoah Senausert III dug the first Suez Canal
The only alternative to passage through the Suez Canal for vessels voyaging between Europe and Asia is to sail around the Cape of Good Hope, at the southern tip of Africa. This would cost most ships another week to ten days at sea, and is not considered an option for safely shipping live animals.
The Suez Canal has existed, off and on, since the Egyptian pharaoh Senausert III had it dug at some point during his 38-year reign, lasting from 1887 BCE to 1849 BCE.
The Suez Canal of today, officially opened in 1869 after 10 years of excavation, has been repeatedly widened. It is now approximately twice the width that it was during the Suez Canal crisis of 1956-1957, when Egyptian president Gammal Abdel Nassar nationalized the canal.
“Playing chicken” in the Suez Canal
British, French, and Israeli forces then seized and reopened the canal, against the opposition of both U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower and Nikita Khrushchev, president of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Nassar responded by sinking ships to block passage to the canal entrances.
The Suez Canal was eventually returned to Egyptian control and restored to service, with the proviso that Israeli vessels, excluded since 1950, would also be allowed to use it.
The most recent Suez Canal expansion, in 2015, was in theory supposed to have allowed container ships the size of the Ever Given to pass through simultaneously, traveling in opposite directions.
In light of the Ever Given disaster, this would appear to be much like playing maritime “chicken,” a deadly game, incidentally, which actual chickens are not known to play.
Stranded cattle cargoes killed
The Ever Given grounding came only two days after Spanish slaughtermen reportedly finished killing 864 bullocks aboard the Karim Allah, and turned to killing 1,610 steers aboard the Elbeik, after both live cargoes spent months stranded in the Mediterranean.
The 895 bullocks were loaded about the Karim Allah at Cartagena, Spain, in mid-December 2020, of whom 31 apparently died at sea, 22 of them on the initially scheduled voyage to Turkey.
The Elbeik was loaded at about the same time in Tarragona, Spain, subsequently experiencing a reported 179 cattle deaths at sea.
Turkey refused both shipments, believing the bullocks to be infected with the insect-borne disease bluetongue. The Karim Allah and the Elbeik then sought to deliver the cattle to Tripoli, Libya, where the animals were also refused.
The cattle were returned to Spain, but could not be unloaded there, either, because of a European ban on cattle imports from Libya, imposed because both bluetongue and foot-and-mouth disease are endemic to Libya.
Remember the Ocean Drover!
Commented Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases [ProMED] livestock diseases moderator Arnon Shimshony, “The whole event may be reminiscent of the 2012 Ocean Drover event, when a sheep consignment from Australia to the Gulf states was rejected due to animal health reservations, eventually ending up in Pakistan after being anchored off a Bahrain port for at least a fortnight.
“Return to Australia was rejected by the Australian authorities. Testing on arrival in Pakistan cleared the sheep of ill-health concerns,” Shimshony recalled, but all 22,000 sheep were slaughtered and dumped anyway, largely for political reasons. The killing was conducted in a manner, moreover, that appalled both media and shipping industry witnesses.
Live Animal Transport: Time to Change the Rules
The Ever Given, Karim Allah, and Elbeik incidents followed the March 7, 2021 publication of a Eurogroup for Animals white paper entitled Live Animal Transport: Time to Change the Rules, addressing a scheduled update of the European Union Transport Regulation, last updated in January 2005.
“A vast range of animal species are transported within the European Union and beyond,” the Eurogroup paper opened, “but the [EU] Transport Regulation does not guarantee effective protection to all of them. In principle,” Eurogroup said, “such Regulation should apply to the commercial transport of [all] live vertebrate animals, but the majority of its provisions refer only to the welfare of certain terrestrial farmed animal species: the requirements for the transport of fish, companion animals and equines are less developed; and measures to ensure the welfare of a large group of species transported for scientific purposes are completely absent. Additionally, by definition, invertebrates transported for food production remain out of the scope of the Regulation.
“As a general principle,” Eurogroup argued, “the revised Transport Regulation should adhere to the basic principles of reducing, refining and replacing live transport , whenever applicable.”
More than 229 million live animals were exported from the European Union in 2019, Eurogroup found, including 224 million poultry, three million sheep, a million cattle, and 392,000 pigs. Among them, 96% were exported for slaughter in the destination nations.