Poached close to extinction

Jean Redpath investigates the multimillion Rand perlemoen poaching business and the latest efforts to control it.

The war between perlemoen poachers and the law on the Cape south coast is hotting up as police swoop on poachers and seize their stockpiles. In mid February, with the aid of an airforce helicopter, over 20 people were arrested near Pearly Bay and two vehicles and more than 4,000 perlemoen recovered. Another huge haul was found in Gansbaai shortly afterwards.

A week earlier, a battle between an 80-strong mob and police took place outside Kleinmond police station, where two suspected poachers were being held. The crowed hurled stones and fired several shots at police, who responded with rubber bullets and birdshot, injuring three people. There were reports of petrol bombs being thrown and tyres burned in nearby Proteadorp that night. A few days later a Scorpions officer was killed in a shoot-out with suspected poachers in Kraaifontein, Cape Town.

Overfishing of many species is rife but the illicit trade in perlemoen is a multimillion Rand business that has attracted gangs from the Cape Flats with links to international drug syndicates. Entire communities in fishing villages are being sucked into its support activities, with children under 12, who are immune from prosecution, being used as runners. They are aided and abetted by corrupt officers in the police and probably customs too. Recently 13 officials of Marine and Coastal Management (MCM), the government conservation body, were dismissed for corruption.

"What is happening on the coast of the Overberg is a disaster," says Hennie Bester of the Democratic Alliance and formerly the provincial MEC for community safety and security. "It involves the criminal rape of a precious resource. Estimates vary but around R400 million a year is being lost from the province. The police are unable to deal with the problem because of extensive corruption."

The trade has rocketed in value in recent years with growing demand from China - the shellfish is a traditional eastern delicacy - and the falling Rand. In the 1980s a kilogram of perlemoen sold abroad for R30-R80. Now it sells locally for R300/kg and in the Far East for up to R1400/kg. The adult animals, which take eight to 12 years to grow, command the best prices. In South Africa it is forbidden to remove perlemoen that are under three years old.

Divers, runners, drivers and middlemen are partly paid in drugs. Although there is no hard evidence, perlemoen itself is probably used to pay for drugs imported from the East - a sophisticated form of barter that avoids incriminating international dollar transactions. DNA tests on the shellfish have revealed that it is also transported to neighbouring Namibia, Botswana and Lesotho and then re-imported to South Africa as "foreign" produce before "legal" export to the Far East. Poachers have even managed to turn the confiscation of stock to their own advantage by buying it back from MCM and then fraudulently copying the permits issued to cover additional poached stockpiles. Now MCM is planning to enter the marketing business itself by selling directly to China.

Hawston, a few kilometres from the tourist town of Hermanus and close to the rocky coast of Mudge Point Marine reserve, is typical of the villages that have been drawn into the net. It is controlled by Rooidakkies gang boss Ernest "Ernie Lastig" Solomons, whose business interests include drug trafficking, gun smuggling, protection rackets and a poaching operation that extends from Fishbaai to Gansbaai. His gang is aligned to the notorious Cape Flats 28 gang and mayhem erupts periodically as Rooidakkies clash over competing poaching operations with the Naughty Angels of Mount Pleasant, which also has heavy Cape Flats involvement. In one week in February last year three men were shot dead in gang-related incidents in the area and eight were wounded, including a 20-year-old man who was shot in both legs in front of the Hermanus magistrates' court.

Poaching is large-scale, involving gangs of 50-60 at a time, and often carried out in broad daylight. Local conservation organisations such as SeaWatch, which was formed in 1995 to counter the huge increase in poaching of perlemoen and crayfish (rock lobster) between Rooi Erls and Kleinmond, say that poachers have assaulted scores of people in the area. Some of their victims were simply on the beach at the wrong time.

In December, 57-year-old Linda Tannett, wife of a prominent SeaWatch member, was hit in the face with a rock by a suspected poacher she encountered at Betty's Bay. She lost a front tooth and needed stitches. The man's car had false numberplates.

Despite the scale of poaching, the conviction rate for offences in the area is less than 5 per cent. Cases are continually postponed because defence lawyers demand that the confiscated haul is sent for forensic testing to make sure that it is perlemoen and not a similar looking species of abalone known as "siffies". Spot fines and court fines are rarely more than R2,000, and most poachers view them as an operational expense.

The recent dramatic arrests and seizures are part of Operation Neptune, a joint venture between the MCM and the police. It has been in place for a number of years, with a brief hiatus in 1999 due to lack of funds. A law enforcement drive of renewed vigour began in June 2001.

"Confiscating dead abalone is of no use to us - we wanted to try to ensure it is not taken out in the first place, and concentrate our resources on prevention," explains Marcel Kroese, MCM's deputy director of exploitation control. "But then it became clear that part of prevention must be the disruption of marketing activities, otherwise sales will stimulate further poaching."

He has no illusions about success, however. "All we are able to do at present is stop poaching getting completely out of hand," he says. "We have very limited resources and the Basic Conditions of Employment Act in particular pushes up our costs by putting a premium on work done at night, on Sundays and holidays - exactly when we need it."

Since organised crime is involved, the Scorpions (Directorate of Special Operations) have recently joined the fight. They are finalising a charge sheet against a number of individuals in one of the poaching syndicates, and not just the divers at the bottom of the system. "The problem is usually that the evidence is very poor and no one is willing to testify against anyone else in the chain," says Scorpions prosecutor Suad Jacobs.

"In this case we have very good evidence. More than one player in the chain was caught in the act and various players have agreed to testify against each other. This is a perfect test case for a racketeering charge." (Racketeering is a new offence introduced under the 1998 Prevention of Organised Crime Act and carries a maximum penalty of R1 billion fine or life imprisonment.)

Before he left office, Bester commissioned a tough new plan, Project Perlemoen which has the support of police, army and MCM. According to Douw Steyn, chief director of the community safety and security department, they are awaiting the detailed business plan that has been commissioned from consultants, after which the project can go to the new cabinet for approval. Bester worries that the new MEC, Leonard Ramatlekane, might be dragging his heels over the plan. However Steyn reassures that "It does enjoy a high priority in the department."

Project Perlemoen involves bringing in handpicked personnel from a private security company that is not based in the Western Cape. Employees would be well-paid and be required to undergo regular lie detector tests. They would be supported by intelligence officers from the army as well as senior police officers from outside the area, who can respond rapidly outside of what Bester calls "the corrupt and contaminated chain".

According to a detailed report in the Cape Times (January 24, 2002) personnel would be divided into four units and concentrate on intelligence gathering and 24-hour surveillance of selected areas from the shore, inflatable boats and under water. Every full-time project member would be in radio contact with two others, who could provide rapid reinforcement. The estimated cost of the plan is R10 million - "small change", says Bester, "compared to the cost to the state of what is happening."