A tale of resilience in the live animal transport sector

With the live animal transport sector still reeling in the wake of the pandemic and the geopolitical crisis, we take a glimpse into how cargo carriers stayed afloat. Battling against the ongoing crises, the sector tackled outbreaks, illegal trade and safety concerns. Cargo operators and regulators, however, remain optimistic, stating that animal welfare remained key.

A tale of resilience in the live animal transport sector
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Experts we reached out to agreed that the sector was battered by operational backdrops like geopolitical events and the pandemic, with trade still affected as importers and exporters remain wary of another epidemic outbreak. Pic credit: Lufthansa Cargo

With air cargo markets the world over reeling in the wake of the ongoing pandemic, many geopolitical crises, animal epidemics and labour shortages, The STAT Trade Times decided to turn the lens on a topic less discussed – the live animal transport sector.

In light of this, we reached out to an airline that was awarded the IATA CEIV certification in February this year. Etihad Cargo became the first airline in the Middle East and only the third globally to hold IATA's CEIV Live Animals, CEIV Fresh and CEIV Pharma certifications.

John OGrady, Manager Authorisations and Standards, Operations & Delivery at Etihad Cargo

John O'Grady, Manager Authorisations and Standards, Operations & Delivery at Etihad Cargo

John O'Grady, Manager Authorisations and Standards, Operations & Delivery – Etihad Cargo said this was the toughest cargo to transport. "Live animals are among the most difficult cargo to transport, presenting a number of unique challenges as each type of animal has its own specific requirements."

He added that as a result of the Russia-Ukraine geopolitical conflict, Etihad Cargo had taken a hit in its live animal transport business. However, the airline soon made a recovery. "As a result of the Russia-Ukraine situation, Etihad Cargo has witnessed a decrease in the transportation of live animals to and from certain countries. However, Etihad Cargo achieved a 52 per cent increase in the transportation of live animals across its global operations in H1 2022 and remains committed to offering transportation solutions that meet ongoing challenges and provide safe and efficient transportation for live animals."

Another cause of concern is animal safety during transport. Charles McMullen, director of Intradco Global, which specialises in live animal transport, spoke to us about the most stressful part of live animal transport in the aviation sector. "The most stressful part during the transfer of the animals is usually at the loading and offload periods. It's important to minimise the stress for the animal at this period."

According to the market research firm Fortune Business Insights, "Europe's animal transportation market size stood at $408.46 million in 2019 and is projected to reach $516.75 million by 2027, exhibiting a CAGR of 4.3% during the forecast period."

In light of this robust growth, we decided to dig deeper and delve into the challenges that the sector faces.

Experts we reached out to agreed that the sector was battered by operational backdrops like geopolitical events and the pandemic, with trade still affected as importers and exporters remain wary of another epidemic outbreak. Despite this, live animal transport continues to forge ahead, showing resilience in its adaptation to the new normal.

Horse-powered transport

O'Grady commented on the peak season for horse transport, which lasted for a whopping six months. "For the transportation of horses, there is a six-month peak season for east-to-west and then west-to-east travel to coincide with major equine events and the horse-racing season. For pets, the peak season in the UAE tends to align with school holiday periods, especially in the summer."

With another geopolitical conflict currently underway, we attempted to understand how the sector recovered from a previous event that affected the live animal transport sector – Brexit.

According to Filip Vande Capelle, CEO and Founder of European Horse Services (EHS) and past president of the Animal Transport Association (ATA), a geopolitical event that affected the live animal transport sector was Brexit which led to regulatory changes in shipping horses. "Brexit has changed the procedures for shipping of horses, and live animals in general, drastically. For animal welfare, this is not a step in the right direction as waiting times and total travel times have increased considerably. For owners, riders and trainers, it is a real burden since many of them still do not know the exact procedures and are often confronted with problems, delays of shipments and even cancellations. Not to talk about the financial impact where the costs for shipping a horse from, let's say the south of England to central Europe has spiked, only because of the extra costs in paperwork and controls. To top it all, owners are also confronted with VAT and Import duties in some cases."

Outlining the scenario before Brexit, Vande Capelle said, "In pre-Brexit times, all one needed to do was to apply for a standard export health certificate which, together with your horse's passport, allowed you to travel between all Member States. Horses moving between the UK, Ireland and France did not even need that health certificate, thanks to a tri-partite agreement between those countries."

Pandemic problems

The pandemic, however, seemed to emerge as the biggest hurdle for live animal transport. We turned to McMullen for answers.

McMullen felt that when the pandemic first hit, it was the live animal sector that took the biggest blow. He explained that to look at how the sector was impacted, one had to look at it through a timeline. "You'd have to look at it on a timeline. When the pandemic first hit, live animal transport was probably the worst-hit sector. This was because the whole world was speculating that maybe animals are also a transmitter of Covid-19."

He said that at that point, while cargo was still flying, live animal transport was at a standstill. "I would say for two months, no live animal cargo was flying.

He added that when the sector witnessed some form of recovery, it was mainly for livestock. "When we started flying mainly livestock again, there was a lot of poultry being flown."

However, what came to a halt was equine movement in cargo. "What did come to almost a complete halt for a longer period was the horse transport. This was primarily because the grooms couldn't fly. So even though the horses were allowed themselves if we didn't have any grooms to accompany the horses, then the horses couldn't fly by default. So that became a big issue."

Vande Cappelle agreed that the Covid-19 pandemic hit our sector really hard," the past president of the ATA said. "The first European lockdown was especially a real nightmare. Not only were most flights cancelled for a number of weeks, but we were also not always able to find alternative solutions. Many horse shows were cancelled worldwide."

However, like McMullen, Vande Capelle said that shipping horses was not as big a problem once a suitable flight or aircraft was found. The real problem, however, was that of finding attendants. "All of a sudden, they were not allowed to fly anymore on some airlines as aviation companies were fearing that they could transfer Covid-19 to crew members. Airlines and authorities imposed additional requirements for in-flight attendants, which were hard to meet. For instance, in the USA, our attendants needed a different visa, for which they need to apply and visit the US Embassy. But then the embassy remains closed to the public for months due to the pandemic, and it becomes very difficult."

McMullen said another big sector that was hit within live animal transport was that of commercial livestock. "This is usually applies to sheep destined for the Middle East, usually for consumption, as opposed to breeding. That is a very price-sensitive market, and at that point, freight prices skyrocketed, and none of those importers could afford to pay airfreight prices."

He added that the effects of the pandemic were still being felt in the sector. "The sector has, and it still is, suffering now. Pretty much all commercial livestock is going by vessel. There are anomalies on certain lanes currently. From what we're seeing, if you look at the figures by air tonnages of commercial livestock, it is down by 190%."

Charles McMullen, Director of Intradco Global

Charles McMullen, Director of Intradco Global

Vande Capelle explained how volatile prices were another immense challenge that emerged due to the pandemic continuing its firm grip on the live animal transport sector. "The other challenge was the finances; just like in the cargo industry in general, air freight on most destinations increased enormously and sometimes unexpectedly. This is still hard to explain to customers and trickled into their business."

According to the IATA's most recent Air Cargo Market Analysis for May 2022, "The industry-wide cargo load factor was 50.4% in May, which is a 6.1 percentage points (ppts) decrease compared with a year ago. This is also weaker than April air cargo load factors, which were 52.1%. Europe and the Middle East recorded the greatest declines in load factors in May, as the increase in capacity in those regions was less well matched by demand."

The report went on to state that "the coming months will be telling if demand is sufficient to benefit from the easing in supply chain constraints which exacerbated the cargo capacity crunch earlier in 2022."

Geopolitical impacts

On quizzing Vande Capelle about the Russia-Ukraine war and the ripple effect on the live animal transport sector, he said, "The main impact here is the gigantic increase in fuel prices until today still. On the other hand, since Russia and Ukraine are not the biggest countries in the world when it comes to horse breeding and trade, the direct impact is minimal as not so many horses are flown to or from those countries."

About how flight delays and re-routings impact live animal cargo, McMullen said it all depended on which part of the logistics chain the problem occurred. "If you would usually have layover farms or transit farms, and if there are delays, you've got the ability to house whichever respective animal you have at that farm. It's fairly easy when you're talking about cattle, pigs or horses because there's usually contingency farms, as we would call them in most places. There are also some airports where you have the luxury of having animal storage. So if you consider Luxembourg as an example, they can house anywhere from one horse up to 90 sometimes. So if there is a delay, you've got someplace to use."

However, the problem translated differently for exotic animals. Explaining the situation, McMullen said, "There are also situations where, say if you're delayed with rhinos, at the airport, it's not as if you can just offload them into a farm somewhere, you will need to then have a contingency plan and that really that relates to the ground transport agent. Then you have to find out how to use an airport close to where the base of the animal previously was. So you can return them within a good time that doesn't contravene their own physical ability to withstand the ground down transport climbing."

Expounding the regulatory mechanisms of the sector, he said, "There are regulations, particularly in the European Union, they have ground transport regulations and transit times that we as ground transport and as an airline or acting as an agent for an airline need to adhere to. For example, let's say for livestock, you will never want to exceed 20 hours as a general rule."

O'Grady added that in light of flight delays, cancellations or re-routings, Etihad Cargo ensured that a contingency plan was in place for all live animals. "To ensure the safe transportation of all species, Etihad Cargo has robust contingency plans, processes and measures in place for live animals. These vary from species to species, but they include re-oxygenation, stabling, and dedicated processes for collection and kennelling."

Precious cargo

Compounding these problems is another challenge of high mortality rates when it comes to young chicks or perishables like fish.

O'Grady said Etihad Cargo follows robust processes in the transportation of all species, including fish and poultry. "We ensure the conditions we provide meet the unique needs of every animal we transport. To further ensure the safety of animals, we also embargo the transportation of certain animals during the summer months due to the high temperatures recorded at our Abu Dhabi hub."

He added that in case of inflight disturbances, aircraft were diverted to the nearest airport. "In the very rare event that there is an in-flight animal disturbance, the aircraft may need to divert to a nearby airport, where local authorities will be notified of the situation ahead of arrival. On freighter flights, grooms always travel with larger animals, so there are qualified staff on board the flight to handle any disturbances."

Of labour

This year the industry was riddled with the additional challenge of manpower. According to McMullen, this did have an impact on the sector, considering how transport of live animals is a "hands-on job". "It does impact live animal transport since it's a hands-on job. Take, for instance, a place where some handling agents do not want to take these flights on for that reason as they're already too busy handling general cargo. So trying to add a flight where you don't have the resources is a challenge. I think everyone can appreciate that you can't get a live animal flight wrong because of the consequences. So we've had hundreds of handling agents reject flights."

O'Grady said they had a mitigation plan in place to counter such labour shortages. "To mitigate the risk of manpower challenges, Etihad Cargo coordinates closely with airports, service providers and authorities and is committed to delivering on-time and as promised services through a robust supplier management system."

Crying foul

According to a recent update on the ATA website, the world of poultry is currently reeling under the effects of the outbreaks of a highly pathogenic avian influenza in North America. To understand better how such outbreaks impact the live animal transport sector, we reached out to McMullen. "The poultry sector has been affected not just in the USA, but currently also in France and the UK. So we've seen a number of cancelled shipments because of this, and it can happen across products as well."

Filip Vande Capelle, CEO and Founder of European Horse Services (EHS)

Filip Vande Capelle, CEO and Founder of European Horse Services (EHS)

We asked Vande Capelle to weigh in on what measures could be enforced to avoid an outbreak and the spread of animal diseases in the cargo sector. "Some diseases, whether animal or human, might be spread by animals, whereas others cannot. This is why each country has individual requirements for various species, requirements which have to be met before an animal is allowed for import on their territory."

Vande Capelle used the example of horses, "For horses, this can be a full range of protective measures going from vaccinations, pre-shipment and post-arrival quarantine stabling over multiple tests and even treatments just before shipping. Some countries will not allow the importation of certain animals from certain countries (the import of horses from most African countries into the EU is not allowed). The recommendations of the World Organisation for Animal Health, originally founded as the Office International des Epizooties (OIE) are vital in this, especially with regards to the outbreaks and spreading of diseases reported in some areas of the world."

McMullen went on to talk about another epidemic – the African swine flu. "A huge issue that has happened over the years has been African swine flu, in Chinese and far-eastern pig stocks, which has killed billions of pigs. This has caused huge delays in shipments because no one wanted to import livestock or pigs if there was a risk that they would get the disease upon being imported. However, it also raised the point that the Chinese now need to replenish their farms, which created a kind of a boom of imports from around 2020 or 2019 onwards in order to restock, so for every downturn, there is still then an upturn at some later stage."

By the CITES rulebook

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), an international treaty set up in 1963, provides a regulatory framework against illegal trade.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), "CITES aims to keep the international trade of wild plants and animals legal, sustainable and traceable. Its Parties take decisions to ensure that international trade of valuable wild species of plants and animals does not endanger their survival in the wild."

In light of this, we asked McMullen what protocols need to be followed to ensure adherence to the CITES framework when it came to transporting live animal cargo, "All carriers should have trained their staff to read CITES paperwork accurately. That's really key."

He went on to say that forged paperwork was still a significant problem. "You know that there can be forgeries, and we've seen them in the past with people trying to create fake documents. So you really have to have good training to check that. And then you can also check directly on the CITES database to check whether the reference numbers actually match what you're being given on the documentation."

Vande Capelle said the IATA had outlined regulations with CITES in mind. As a guest member of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) Live Animals and Perishable Board which establishes standards and conditions for live animal transport by air Vande Capelle elaborated on the IATA mechanism. "Airlines and freight forwarders are familiar with IATA's Live Animals Regulations (LAR), which not only describe handling and shipping requirements for every animal but also include restrictions imposed by CITES, airlines and national authorities. Airlines and freight forwarders have specialised staff members who are trained to know and apply those regulations and to tackle misleading, incorrect or incomplete information and documentation."

He went on to add that ATA is also a member of the Transport Taskforce of United for Wildlife, which worked on combating illegal wildlife trade and was founded by UK's Prince William and The Royal Foundation in 2014. "Thanks to combined efforts, an excellent exchange of knowledge and training of people involved in the shipping and financial processes, many illegal wildlife trade routes have been stopped already. But there is still a long way to go."

O'Grady from Etihad Cargo said that the carrier had its own in-house training programme for CITES. "Etihad Cargo developed and rolled out a training programme for all our ground handling agents. This programme is the first line of defence in identifying suspicious activity. Furthermore, Etihad Cargo's export Control team monitors all shipments and identifies any suspicious bookings to combat illegal trade."

Eric the rhino

In 2018, Intradco Global was involved in the transport of the highly publicised Eric the Rhino, an eight-year-old black rhino who was selected for a breeding programme at the Serengeti in Tanzania. Eric was to be shifted from the San Diego Zoo Safari Park by Intradco Global in collaboration with Qatar Airways Cargo.

Explaining the complexity of the process, McMullen said there was a whole myriad of problems or potential problems when it came to moving exotic species.

"First, it starts with the reliability of the transporter. When you're dealing with such a rare species, you'd need to ensure that the carrier's reliable, whether they have good aircraft and whether their schedule is built in to offer some flexibility, such as early arrival of the animal so you can have an extended crew rest in case there were delays on the inbound flight needed for exotic species. At Intradco Global, we have our own experts that can handle livestock, horses and poultry. But when you start getting into exotic species, it becomes a very, very specialised area."

McMullen added that in times like these, having proper ground staff and a vet on board is crucial. "We would always insist on having a vet that is experienced in that particular species who usually accompanies the animal throughout the trip, including ground transport and air transport."

Another important aspect McMullen highlighted was that of equipment. "The ULD is very important. That's the touch point where the animal has the most interaction with its external environment.

IATA has a very useful guide as to how the ULD design should be managed. And that's updated through the Live Animal and Perishable Board (LAPD) sessions quarterly. So that knowledge sharing of what should be changed and what should be adjusted is constantly being updated."

Another crucial component is the paperwork. "The paperwork for endangered species, not just the CITES permissions, but also the relevant health certification, import and export certifications because that can cause unnecessary delays if it's not handled correctly."

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