Shell games: Unravelling the complex web around abalone poaching

Despite regular success, abalone poaching remains a thorn in the side of the authorities, with the nation's fiscus losing hundreds of millions of rands to sophisticated syndicates who illegally exploit the natural resource.

FILE: Abalone estimated at R9.5 million was confiscated in Tygerdal, Goodwood, by police officials. Picture: @SAPoliceService/Twitter

CAPE TOWN - Law enforcement agencies hope that greater coordination and collaboration will help them break the back of abalone syndicates.

Abalone busts and successful confiscations often make news headlines and yet every year, the nation's fiscus loses hundreds of millions of rands to sophisticated syndicates who illegally exploit the natural resource.

The rich cold waters of the Atlantic Ocean are a prime habitat for sought-after abalone.

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But the nation is not profiting from the natural resource to the extent that it could be.

"The country's losing about 3,000 tonnes of abalone per annum," the Department of Environmental Affairs' Bernard Liedemann explains.

This costs the economy dearly: "We estimate that it's between that minimum amount of R260 million but it can go up to as much as R2 billion lost to the country."

The biggest demand for South Africa's abalone is the Far East and both legal fishermen and criminal syndicates exploit a booming market in mainland China and Hong Kong.

The illegal trade is a complex web to unweave, with sophisticated syndicates at the top and subsistence poachers, like this man, at the bottom.

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"Before I was working, but poaching is what put money in my pocket and food on the table. The alternative was drugs. When I didn't have employment, I approached a group of poachers and nobody asked any questions and they put me to work."

The Hangberg resident asked not to be named and told Eyewitness News that he left the syndicate when he found a job that paid him enough to live.

The SAPS and the Hawks are wary of narratives like his, saying that this was not a victimless crime driven by poverty but a serious problem driven by an organised multi-business criminal structure that feeds money and resources into various layers of criminal groupings.

Law enforcement and monitoring agencies said it was possible to break the back of the illegal abalone trade.

The Hawks in the Western Cape alone seized illegal abalone worth R30 million over the past financial year.

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But they and their counterparts in other agencies acknowledged that they were a long way off from protecting a scarce natural resource that had become currency for sophisticated criminal syndicates.

Markus Burgener from the international conservation organisation TRAFFIC said that despite the many confiscations and arrests, the fight against abalone poaching was a bit of a lost cause.

"It has been going on for more than 20 years and we have not stopped it, if anything it's got worse in the last five years.

"I think these confiscations need to be recognised but we must not be fooled into thinking because we have a month where we're really successful, we make some significant confiscations and key arrests that that's going to be the game-changer, but it's really not."

It's a complex business run by very sophisticated syndicates with international associations and that means that cutting the head off the beast is difficult.

But Liedemann believes that there is reason to hope.

"I think we're definitely not losing the war, we must just keep on improving our efforts and hoping that at the end of the day, we'll win this war."

Authorities agree that operations that rope in all arms of law enforcement showed more success.

But whilst the Hawks and the SAPS agree that working together was the way, they acknowledged that it was challenging to synchronise efforts by multiple departments and close the gaps.

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