WHEN the Ocean Drover, carrying tens of thousands of Australian sheep, was boarded in August by Bahraini quarantine officials demanding to meet the captain, exporter Wellard knew something was not right.
The ensuing scrutiny by authorities and the eventual refusal to unload 21,000 sheep heralded the beginning of the chaotic last month of the sheep's lives that ended with them culled, many of them brutally, in a Karachi feedlot.
Wellard has revealed for the first time that it discussed culling the 21,000 sheep at sea and throwing them overboard in a bid to maintain animal welfare.
Wellard executive chairman Mauro Balzarini said they needed to dispose of the animals and could have killed the sheep at sea. ''Slaughter them humanely according to the international standard. Throw them overboard - animal welfare is protected but what would be the reaction of the media in Australia if you throw 20,000 sheep, although killed humanely, in the sea?'' he said.
The Ocean Drover, owned and operated by Wellard, ferried sheep from Fremantle unloading in Oman and Kuwait, without hassle, before arriving in Bahrain on August 21.
When it docked, Bahrain officials accused the ship of having an unacceptable mortality rate during the voyage. After this was debunked, officials kitted out in hazard suits boarded and claimed the sheep were infected with scabby mouth.
The Ocean Drover was ordered out of port at midnight, prompting diplomatic negotiation.
On August 29, Wellard was told that the sheep had been approved, subject to an independent test. The ship re-entered Bahrain and the next day the agriculture department approved discharge.
''As we were preparing for discharge, the [harbour] master received instruction by the port authority to leave. Because the Minister of Interior said so. Without any explanation, without anything. Basically that was an order that could not be ignored,'' Mr Balzarini said.
Wellard executive director Stephen Meerwald said it was likely that ''internal conflict within Bahrain and commercial players'' caused the rejection.
The whole Australian industry has now barred trade with Bahrain, which Mr Meerwald said was definitely not a commercial decision. ''Bahrain is calling us every day - 'we need sheep','' Mr Balzarini said.
Pakistan's PK Livestock, which Wellard helped found in 1996- and was listed as the exporter's contingency market -- took the sheep two weeks later after it was approved as a compliant ''supply chain'' under new animal welfare export rules.
Despite clearance from Pakistan authorities, allegations of disease from local authorities were levelled. Tests found no disease in the sheep, but the local government backed by 300 armed security personnel seized control of the PK Livestock facility and began a cull on September 16.
PK Livestock's head, Tariq Butt, sought an injunction, that was not approved until September 22, but by then nearly 10,000 sheep were slaughtered.
Reports, and unsubstantiated YouTube videos, detail brutal killing methods with some animals buried alive. At night locals were seen pilfering the mass graves, cutting off limbs of dead animals to take home or sell.
Mr Balzarini and Mr Butt both blame the Karachi media for whipping up fear and concern about the rejection in Bahrain.
Throughout the incident there has been industry and media speculation that accusations were levelled because certain ''demands'' were not met: Mr Butt made these claims in the Karachi media but would not repeat them when Fairfax spoke to him.
''These men declared the healthy Australian sheep diseased after their ''demands'' were not met and used fake evidence to have thousands of sheep culled in an inhumane way,'' Mr Butt told a Pakistan newspaper.
When Wellard was asked this week about corruption, Mr Meerwald said it had no reason to doubt there was ''something behind that''.
On October 18 Mr Butt withdrew the injunction claim, sealing the fate of the sheep which were swiftly killed.
The backdown came after armed police turned up to demolish the PK Livestock facility but were driven away by local employees. ''You can imagine a man who's just put everything into three weeks in court doing everything in court to defend the rights of these sheep. You can imagine what sort of pressure he may have been under,'' Mr Balzarini said.
On Monday the ABC's Four Corners investigates the Pakistan saga, with the live export industry extremely nervous.
with Damien Bright