“[The empty ship] has probably scurried away,” Simpson said. “Then maybe Australia phoned the Indonesians later to say, ‘Oh gee, really sorry about that’.”

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Logs showed the ship left the Indonesian port of Medan about 24 hours after its arrival, and before news emerged of the deaths.

The live cattle trade is a sensitive issue in both Australia and Indonesia. Activists want the trade banned, citing the suffering of the animals, and Indonesia takes its biosecurity seriously.

A spokesman for Indonesia’s quarantine agency told reporters in Jakarta on Thursday that the Australian Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) passed on the true casualty figures, not the crew.

His remarks suggested the notification from Australia arrived only after the Brahman Express was unloaded in Medan on either March 23 or 24 – at least nine days after leaving Darwin and three days after its first stop in Bandar Lampung.

A delayed notice like this would be problematic because Australian laws required an exporter to inform the government within 12 hours if there had been three or more onboard cattle deaths.

Indonesia has suspended live cattle exports from a Darwin export yard.

Indonesia has suspended live cattle exports from a Darwin export yard.Credit: Glenn Campbell

While the precise timing of the third of the 151 deaths was unclear, the crew had time to discard almost all the carcasses overboard, a task Simpson said was common practice, but also difficult and protracted.

It appeared that either the crew did not inform the Australian government, or the government had the details but chose not to inform the Indonesians. This was put to both DAFF and Vroon. The shipping company did not address the question, while DAFF pointed to an earlier statement that contained no relevant details.

“I’m guessing this is going to blow up to be quite a big diplomatic and trade debacle,” Simpson said.

“I mean, they just f—ed up. The background at this point in time is that the cattle trade is trying to stay really quiet. The sheep trade is in the firing line, and the cattle guys are just sort of skulking around the back saying, ‘Don’t look at us’.”

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Mark Harvey-Sutton, chief executive of the Australian Livestock Exporters Association, said the organisation didn’t yet have all the facts, but was “of the view this sort of detail can be worked through” by both governments.

“The Indonesian government has already officially indicated it would only suspend one facility where the cattle were held prior to export, and I understand they are satisfied the cause of the cattle deaths was botulism,” he said.

“This has been our key concern, and we are grateful for the work of Indonesian and Australian officials to reach this resolution.”

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The best practice for the disposal of dead cattle, Simpson said, was to cut the animal into eight pieces and haul them to the upper level of the ship with gaffer hooks.

“But with that many [deaths], I imagine these guys were trying to run a crane into the guts of the ship… and take the entire carcass out and dump it over the edge that way,” she said.

“With a full carcass, you run a much bigger risk of them ending up on beaches. They sort of become floaters. People might see cattle bobbing about in the water. All you need is one yachtsman or something to take photos of it bloated … and it’s into the press. And then the trade cops an extra hammering.”

She said the Brahman Express would not have had a vet because, despite years of lobbying, there was no legal requirement to have one on onboard for relatively short trips like Darwin to Indonesia.

“Some of these short-haul voyages are taking 20,000 cattle – and with not one vet,” she said.

Had there been a vet on the Brahman Express, Simpson said they would have identified the symptoms of botulism and advised euthanizing the sick cattle to avoid suffering.

“Stockies [stockmen] often wait in case things get better because they don’t have the training to be more certain,” she said.

In addition, a vet would have been a credible contact point to smooth things over with the Indonesians in Medan.

“Indonesia might not have had to be bullshitted to,” she said. “The vet could’ve said, ‘We know it’s botulism. It’s a non-contagious condition. It’s not going to spread. We need to get the surviving animals off the ship immediately for health and welfare reasons’.

“There should be a vet on every voyage.”

Vroon expressed “regret” for what happened on the Brahman Express.

“DAFF have stated that all cattle were assessed to be in a healthy condition and, following inspections by veterinarians, were fit to be loaded,” a spokesman said.

“All health and safety measures for the transportation of livestock on board the vessel were found to be in order.”

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