South Africa losing struggle against abalone poachers

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Posted by on March 30, 2005 at 23:14:27:

GANS BAY, South Africa - (KRT) - As the police trucks round a bend on the white-sand beach, two surprised wetsuit-clad divers race from the water's edge and sprint up a sandy hillside. The police give chase, disappearing into heavy brush, then return with their hands clamped on the shoulders of one of the panting divers.

He has just been picking up shells on the beach, he insists. But he's soaking wet and carrying a flat pry bar, the abalone poacher's tool of choice. His mesh collection bag is empty, though, so police can't charge him. Reluctantly, they take his bag and pry tool and send him on his way.

"He'll be back tomorrow," predicts one of the marine agents. "All we have done is slow him down."

Over the last decade, this rugged 60-mile stretch of coast east of Cape Town, home to one of the world's last big concentrations of commercial abalone, has become a high-tech battleground, pitting conservation agents intent on saving the vanishing species and divers and smugglers who can earn thousands of dollars a day harvesting the giant sea snails, a delicacy in Asia, and spiriting them to Chinese dealers.

In an unprecedented effort to save the species, South Africa has bought new ships equipped with top-of-the-line military night-vision equipment, opened the world's first court dedicated solely to prosecuting abalone poachers and begun testing seized poaching boats and equipment for DNA - at $700 a test - to prove they were used in abalone harvesting.

Lured from throughout South Africa to the equivalent of a maritime gold rush, the poachers, in turn, have turned Gans Bay, once a down-at-the-heels fishing village, into an increasingly prosperous local version of America's Wild West.

Poaching rings maintain their own observation posts around town to warn of police raids and have taken to washing boats with industrial cleaners to thwart DNA tests.

Fleets of new BMWs wait to carry poached abalone to Chinese mafia buyers. Throughout the town, in white, black and mixed-race neighborhoods, illiterate fishermen and out-of-work tradesmen drive new pickups and live in new brick mansions.

"It's not just the fishermen going for it. It's everyone," said Tommy Robberts, a longtime recreational fisherman and lodge owner in Gans Bay. "People without money are becoming wealthy. They don't even mind losing $50,000 worth of abalone one night (to the police) because tomorrow they might be the ones that get away."

Abalone harvesting and poaching are nothing new along South Africa's wild southern coast. Early Khoisan inhabitants of the region left behind giant middens of iridescent abalone shells that are still visible along the shore near Gans Bay.

For as long as anybody can remember, local fishermen and divers have ignored catch limits and hauled home a few more of the snails than they were allowed for the home cook pot. Everybody in Gans Bay has a favorite recipe - sliced then battered and cooked in butter or maybe put in a seafood stew.

Small-scale poaching turned large-scale in the mid-1990s, when Chinese demand for the increasingly rare snails, which are considered an aphrodisiac, began to boom and prices skyrocketed from a few cents a pound to more than $25.

In 1994, conservation records show, 21,000 abalone were harvested nationwide in South Africa; by 2002, the known harvest was 857,000.

As poaching boomed, the fist-sized adult abalone that once carpeted the Gans Bay region's rocky shallows began to vanish, and poachers moved on to taking silver-dollar sized juveniles. Because an abalone reproduces only after gaining adult size, after about seven years, conservationists fear the snails may be on their way to vanishing.

"The way we are going now (the poachers) are going to take it all out," said Dian Leodolff, an operations manager with the region's anti-poaching squad, which is made up of police officers, conservation agents, marines and navy divers.

Forty-six officers patrol the region's shoreline daily but still "we don't have enough manpower," he said.

Poachers, he says, tuck cell phones - set on vibrate and tied inside condoms - inside their wetsuits. When lookouts working with the poachers spot police, they simply phone, and the divers, who already are hard to spot in the bobbing kelp beds where they work, vanish underwater.

At times hundreds of divers converge on abalone hot spots, ensuring that even if police arrest a few, the majority will get away.

Poaching involves just about everybody, Leodolff said, and it pays.

A diver can make $900 in two hours; a lookout nets $1,500 a night; a runner between the shore and a waiting car earns $3.50 a pound, and a driver or intermediate trader, thousands of dollars a day. Leodolff estimates that 60 percent of Gans Bay's families are involved.

Where authorities have begun to make progress against poachers is in court. Judges in the region's general courts, faced with dockets full of rape and carjacking cases, used to dismiss poaching charges as minor offenses, prosecutors say.

But in February 2003, South Africa opened its first environmental court in a flimsy mobile home jammed between the magistrate's court and the police station in Hermanus, a tourist town near Gans Bay.

Since then prosecutors in the cramped courtroom have tried close to 200 abalone cases, with a 75 percent conviction rate.

First-time convicted poachers usually get a suspended sentence of up to 2 years and a suspended fine of perhaps $18,000. A few have gone to jail; others' expensive boats and cars have been confiscated.

Imprisonment and confiscations are "the only real deterrent," said chief prosecutor Phil Snijman. "A fine in this business is seen as a business expense."

One major problem in stopping the trade, he and others said, is that South Africa's abalone are so far not officially listed internationally as an endangered species.

That means if couriers can manage to smuggle the shellfish by road or small plane into neighboring Swaziland or Zimbabwe, which are landlocked countries with no maritime laws, it can be legally exported to China.

In an effort to slow poaching, South Africa has begun experimenting with an allocation system, which gives local fishermen near Gans Bay 10-year rights to harvest a limited number of abalone from a certain area. The idea is that because permit holders have an interest in protecting the supply, they will stop poachers.

Environmental officers and police, however, say the allocation system appears to be a failure, with permit holders and poachers alike continuing to harvest as many abalone as quickly as possible for the lucrative Chinese market.

Even a recent series of shark attacks on abalone divers - Gans Bay is South Africa's capital for great whites - has done little to slow the poaching gold rush.

Police report spotting some divers, from inland regions of South Africa, who can't even swim but still try to pick up a few abalone by pulling themselves along on the kelp beds.

"They don't see it as a crime," said Leon Leroux, a marine inspector. "They see getting rich as a God-given right."

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