Are livestock carriers synonymous with disaster?

Vimal Kumar assesses the horrendous safety track record of vessels moving animals around the world.

You might recall the novel turned hit movie Life if Pi about the the sordid tale of the capsizing of a cargo ship which was transporting zoo animals from Pondicherry to Canada. The tale focuses on the struggle and adjustment of the protagonist—Mr Pissing Patel—with a Bengal tiger. Despite its appearance as realistic and vivid, it was a work of fiction.

The oldest livestock carrier operating today hit the waters just months after JFK was assasinated

However, we have something which is much more brutal than the Yann Martell novel and realistic and fresh as it happened just this month.

The Gulf Livestock 1 with 43 crew and nearly 6,000 cattle capsized and sank off the coast of Japan on the night of September 2 after reportedly losing an engine in rough seas caused by Typhoon Maysak. As of today, only two crew members have survived. The Japanese coastguard found another unconscious crew member, who was pronounced dead on arrival at hospital. It is reported by the coastguard that they have found carcasses of many dead cattle.

The fateful vessel had departed Napier, New Zealand on August 14 bound for Tangshan, China. It was reported to be sailing at a speed of eight knots and due to arrive in China on September 4. On the mid-way, the ship lost one engine and was hit by a wave and capsized without warning.

History of disasters of livestock carriers

Is this a unique and rare accident that happened out of the blue? The answer is most definitely not. Livestock carriers have been capsizing, grounding, catching fire and losing stability throughout their history. The capsizing of Gulf Livestock 1 is not at all unique. Here is list of some of similar accidents.

The Palau-registered 2,113 dwt livestock carrier Queen Hind with 14,000 sheep onboard developed a list, capsized and sank in Midia Port, Romania, in November 2019. The vessel was resting on its starboard side, half of the hull remaining above water. All 22 crew were rescued. However, merely 32 sheep were rescued having been found swimming in the sea, while many were believed to have drowned. The ship was built in 1980.

Another livestock carrier – the 138 m long Boi Branco – caught fire while berthed at Piraeus port, Greece, in May 2019. The 41 crewmembers were safely evacuated.

In January 2019, another livestock carrier – the 131 m long Wardeh – ran aground in the Mediterranean Sea near Mersin, Turkey. The vessel had been at anchor with just two watchmen onboard when it was struck by a severe storm. The vessel’s anchors failed to hold, and the vessel was dragged just 500 m away from the shore. Later, strong winds and large waves broke over her decks and forced water to ingress below deck and, as a result, the vessel developed a heavy list. 

The 6,449 dwt livestock carrier Haidar capsized on October 2015 while berthed at Barcarena, Para, Brazil. The Haidar was loaded with 5,000 cattle and was preparing to depart for Venezuela. The vessel lost stability and sank onto its port side. There were no reports of injuries, but thousands of cattle were trapped onboard and perished.  A small number of cattle managed to escape to the side of the vessel. Like many of today’s class of livestock carriers including the ill-fated Gulf Livestock 1, the Haidar was built in 1994 as a containership and later converted to livestock carrier.

The horrendous livestock tragedies continue. The 1972-built Panama-flagged Nabolsi I  caught fire in the autumn of 2015 in the Mediterranean Sea off Lerapetra, Crete. It was on its way from Beirut to Alexandria. Just a few months prior another livestock carrier – Asia Raya – carrying 634 cows, caught fire. Though the all 37 crewmembers were rescued, it is reported that many cattle lost their lives.

A fire also broke out onboard the Ocean Drover whilst docked at Fremantle port in October 2014. Fortunately, no loss of life of humans and animals were reported. This ship was built in 2002.

Another fire broke out onboard of the 1975-built 72 m long livestock carrier – Estancia – anchored off Berbera, Somali Federal Republic, Gulf of Aden, in August 2013.

Elsewhere, the 200 m long vessel – DANNY F II – capsized in the Mediterranean Sea in December 2009 with the loss of many crewmembers and more than 20,000 animals. The ship was built in 1976 as a car carrier and later converted to a livestock carrier.

Why do they repeatedly fail?

Livestock carriers are a unique type of ship intended to transport cattle and sheep across oceans. There are not many of this type of ships operating globally. As per Equasis data, there are around 150 livestock carriers operating. The average life of the current fleet is approximately 37 years and the Kalymnian Express—at 56 years of age—is the oldest operating livestock carrier today – the ship hitting the waters for the first time just months of President John F Kennedy was assassinated. Age is not only the problem for these ships, many of them were never built to handle animals in the first place.

These vessels are not intrinsically designed as livestock carriers, rather their existing design is manipulated in the later part of the hull’s life to make it fit for the purpose. Often, appropriateness of its purpose is merely shown satisfactorily on paper. Rarely is a livestock carrier built from scratch and designed taking into account strength, stability, and the genuine needs of the livesrtock’s comfort. Most of the ships trading today are converted either from a boxship, car carrier, or general cargo vessel. Such ships have fine hull shapes, which offer significantly lower transverse stability in comparison to other vessels with fuller hulls like bulk carrier and tanker. Converted livestocks carrier are fitted with multiple decks to accommodate more animals. This enhances the windage area and exacerbates the transverse stability. These two combinations result in difficulties to comply with weather criteria of the IMO intact stability code.

Another problem such vessels can encounter is in maintaining the vertical centre of gravity (VCG) of the cargo in the form of thousands of animals. In accordance with the stability requirements of a vessel, VCG must not exceed the permissible values, which is fixed and depends on hull form and operating draft. The actual VCG of a hull is crucially and critically dependent on the location of livestock on the designated deck. Any alteration to the loading pattern has the immense possibility to jeopardise the stability of a whole vessel if left uncontrolled.

All vessels of this category are significantly older. Such vessels are converted to livestock carriers from a parent hull after almost operating 15–20 years in its original hull form. The average life of an operating livestock carrier today – as stated earlier – is now 37 years. As the vessel gets older, the fatigue strength of the structure reduces and enhances the chance of catastrophic failure. Moreover, the main engine, propulsion system and other machinery are rarely renewed during conversion, which has the strong possibility of frequent failure at sea as unfortunately witnessed this month with the Gulf Livestock 1.

What lies ahead

At this point of time, there are around 150 livestock carriers operating globally. In comparison to the number of ships operating globally, the number of livestock carriers is significantly low. However, the number of accidents this type of vessel encounters in the form of fire, capsizing, grounding, is considerably higher. When one specific category of ships is becoming part of continuing accident—and with no end in sight—such a category becomes synonymous with disaster. To break the ugly trend, there is a dire need to look with fresh perspective on their design, construction, and operation.

In terms of strength, there is a need to have a serious look at strength and stability requirements, specific to livestock carriers, from IACS (International Association of Classification Societies), IMO, and relevant statutory bodies.

Considering the accident patterns, reduced stability is the key commonality among most of the failures. To avoid such failures, getting away with the monohulled construction is a convincing option. Innately, such hulls are not adequately stable and fit for the purpose as livestock carriers. Replacing the same with a multihull like catamaran or trimaran will significantly enhance the stability which is the most significant weak element of most livestock carriers today.

Veterinarian Dr Lynn Simpson worked on livestock carriers for many years. Coming ashore she penned a series of exposés on the trades for Splash, all accessible here.


  1. Horrendous and shameful expose of a disgusting trade.
    As usual money is the only effective regulator

  2. There can’t be money in the legal part of the ‘business’.
    Traven described the “Death Ship” as a smuggling and insurance rip-off scheme :

    The harbour charges here in Ireland could be 10s of thousands of Euros a day ( and no vessel is leaving on planned schedule any-more thanks to local and international resistance.

    The latest Death Ship in Irish waters (the ATLANTIC M) is now on chains since a week.

  3. This kind of trade is what people eat ?. Many are saying to stop the livestock trade but afford to eat steak ✋?.

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