South Africa sets sail for the live export trade

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Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Despite strong reproval by animal welfare groups such as the National Council of Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (NSPCA), South Africa is taking its cue from countries such as Australia as one of the world’s largest exporters of live small stock and cattle to Kuwait, Jordan, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Oman.

In step with global live animal exports, a total of live 51 488 small stock and 1 500 head of cattle from South Africa are currently underway to Kuwait on the Al Messilah, a purpose-built ship which is, according to international standards, certified to carry 65 000 small stock.

Read more about the controversy the Al Kuwait sparked.

To start the export process, sheep, goats, and cattle, sourced from different provinces, were brought to a feedlot in Berlin near East London. The feedlot is owned by the Kuwaiti enterprise, AI Mawashi. Following a meticulous inspection and under stringent oversight, the sheep embarked on their journey to the Port of East London on 3 and 4 April. There they boarded the Al Messilah, with the cattle joining them on 5 April. The vessel has embarked on its voyage to Kuwait, charting the seas for an anticipated 12 to 14 days.

Strict health and safety measures

Al Messilah vessel that takes aboard cattle for export.
The Al Messilah maintains mortality rates well below that of internationally accepted standards.

According to Dr Vusi Rozani, director of export facilitation and veterinary public health at the Department of Rural Development and Agrarian Reform in the Eastern Cape, the process of sourcing the animals and quarantining them at the AI Mawashi feedlot for 15 days went exceptionally well.

“We have been working together with organised agriculture as well as officials who represent the NSPCA to ensure that the export of these animals will be successful,” he said. “We take note that the producers have done their best to ensure the animals have short horns and wool. We have also found a very low percentage of pregnant ewes. One of the reasons we are here, is to make sure no diseased animals leave the country.”

When considering challenging conditions such as drought and the economy, Dr Rozani encouraged all livestock producers in South Africa to continue their good work.

An investment to broaden the red meat sector

Brent McNamara, CEO of Agri Eastern Cape, and head of the Eastern Cape branch of the Red Meat Producers’ Organisation (RPO), is convinced that the live animal export trade is critical for South Africa’s red meat sector.

NSCPA official oversees the loading process of livestock that will exported.
The export of live animals necessitates that regulations be put in place to secure biosecurity protocols.

Having observed the complete process at the feedlot holding facility at Berlin where the animals were prepared for the Al Mawashi voyage to Kuwait, he noted that the process went very smooth. “Any injuries or problems that arose, were dealt with immediately and approximately 90% of the animals procured initially for this export were loaded onto the ship, having met the required standards,” he said.

McNamara stated that producer prices have been under pressure as the poor state of the economy affects consumers and their buying power. The country, he says, therefore finds itself in a situation where there is a surplus of red meat.

“In addition, there is a big push from government to get the emerging farming sector involved in the formal value chain, which is something that needs to happen. Our concern is that, if we do not get live exports going, the over-production of red meat is only going to get worse and the investment to expand the red meat sector is going to result in even lower and unsustainable producer prices.

“I believe live exports are going to become an important part of our industry. It is well-regulated in South Africa, and we have a good track record in respect of the exports we have undertaken. We just need to ensure that standards of animal welfare, as outlined in the relevant guidelines, are adhered to so that this trade will continue and expand.”

A critical point of view

Due to the growing need for meat all over the world, it is estimated that approximately five million animals globally are in transit each day. Dr Frikkie Maré, CEO of the RPO, considers the live animal export industry as an important lifeline for South Africa’s economy and its red meat producers.

Livestock being loaded onto a vessel for export
All the animals underwent multiple screenings to ensure only those fit for the voyage were loaded onto the ship.

He summarises the current livestock market as ‘non-advantageous for red meat producers’ since the prices of weaned animals and carcasses are under pressure due to the weak economy, high inflation and interest rates leading to weak demand for red meat from consumers.

“It has placed red meat producers’ cashflow under tremendous pressure,” he said. “By taking weaner lambs and calves out of the market, the live export industry has been playing a pivotal role in helping to boost and support the prices in the local market.”

While South Africa exports carcasses to countries in the Middle East, the notion still exists among many that the export of only carcasses will create a solution for animal welfare and transportation concerns, while contributing to job creation at abattoirs in South Africa.

Dr Maré explained more about the intricacies of the market: “We totally agree that the export of carcasses would simplify the export process in many ways. However, the fact of the matter is that the Middle East has a demand for live animals for which there are various reasons, one of which is that the feed and water utilised to get animals market ready is subject to government subsidies.

“Those governments furthermore pay a subsidy for meat from animals slaughtered in those countries. Another reason for the Middle East’s demand for live animals, is based on certain religious practices which they follow. From a South African point of view, although it is not our first choice to export live animals to other countries, we are trying to meet this demand in order to stimulate the demand for livestock in our country, which will in turn hopefully also benefit our producers and ultimately the consumer.”

SAVA’s view on live animal export

After several meetings and seminars with Australian and New Zealand veterinary associations, including representatives of the Livestock Welfare Co-ordinating Committee, the South African Veterinary Association (SAVA) determined in 2020 that the welfare of animals should enjoy priority over economic considerations.

The organisation stated that while the shipping of livestock for breeding purposes could be justified, long-range shipping for slaughter at the country of destination could be problematic. It stated that it is more difficult to justify the risk of injury and disease with overcrowding when it comes to long journeys, and that animals should rather be slaughtered at Halaal-compliant abattoirs in the country of origin and the meat then shipped to the Middle East. – Carin Venter, Plaas Media

Click on the links below to read official statements about the live export of livestock:

For more information, send an email to Brent McNamara at, or Corine Steyn at the RPO at, or Dr Leon de Bruyn, chairperson of the Eastern Cape and Karoo SAVA-branch on

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