S. African 'SWAT' team to save endangered mollusk

Marine biologists say that due to poaching here, abalone will be commercially extinct in a few years

This picturesque seaside town is a popular holiday destination, famous for the whales that return each year to give birth. But on a stroll down the main strip, Sipho Tubu gives a tour most visitors never see.

"See that man," he says, gesturing toward a shiny new 4x4 vehicle passing by. "He's one of the major buyers." Poachers or buyers, he confides, own most of the restaurants and buildings here. Mr. Tubu should know. He's one of them.

Hermanus is one of dozens of small towns along South Africa's southern coast battling a massive poaching crisis, led by international crime syndicates cooperating with local gangs. Their quarry? Not ivory, animal pelts, or any of the resources traditionally taken from this vast continent. It is abalone, an ocean mollusk destined for the tables of Asian gourmets. There it is fried, added to soups, or covered with savory sauces.

Poaching has brought drugs, guns, and gangs into previously safe communities. Local youth are leaving school to poach. And authorities say some of the abalone is being traded for drugs like heroin.

"You've got 16-year-olds here who are making more in a day than their teachers make in three months. They've got several cars and beachfront houses," says Thomas Peschak, a marine biologist at the University of Cape Town working on antipoaching efforts. "Life is good when you poach, but what's happening now is that the sea is overfished and that livelihood is at risk."

The rocky shores here were once thick with abalone, known locally as perlemoen. But years of heavy poaching are driving the species to near extinction. Marine biologists say the species will be commercially extinct in a few years and that there will soon be too few abalone left to reproduce. Stripped of one of the primary members of the ecosystem, the sea floor is becoming an aquatic desert.

As a result, divers are increasingly resorting to high-tech scuba equipment to reach abalone in deeper waters. Since abalone take more than a decade to grow to full size, it will take years for the populations to recover.

Police admit they know who the poachers and buyers are, but catching them is not so easy.

"It's like a low-level war being fought out there," says Marcel Kroese, a compliance officer involved in abalone protection for the South African Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism (DEAT). "The poachers often take pot shots at us. Frequently, when we go to try to make arrests, there are riots.... Sometimes they've even held us hostage in police stations or petrol-bombed us."

DEAT has teamed up with the police to form an abalone antipoaching unit called Operation Neptune, which patrols these shores with helicopters and high-speed boats. The Army lends a hand, as does the special national organized-crime unit, the Scorpions. But poachers have become more sophisticated. Corruption has also been a problem. At least three officers have been arrested for poaching and several others for taking bribes.

Money from abalone is certainly a major temptation. Authorities seized 1 million poached abalone last year, but estimate the actual take was three times that. At $130 to $175 a pound (eight to 10 abalones per pound) on the international market, it's a multimillion dollar business.

Tubu himself has become prosperous, if not wealthy. With a team of lookouts armed with cellphones, Tubu says he makes several hundred dollars a week from the more than 100 abalone he personally pulls from the sea. Poaching has bought him three houses and a vegetable stand, and supports his girlfriend, a son, a sister, and an aging mother.

A small, thin man with rippling muscles strengthened from his twice-weekly dives, Tubu dislikes the term "poacher." He says people from the township poach because the government discriminated against poor black and mixed-race South Africans when they allocated abalone fishing quotas. They're just trying to survive, he says, denying that small-scale poachers like him are involved in other associated criminal activities such as gun running and drugs.

But later he admits that guns are a part of a poacher's life. He has been charged once with possession of an illegal firearm and escaped arrest on another occasion by burying his gun in the yard.

The government denies that they discriminate against small-scale fishermen, saying there just are not enough legal abalone quotas to go around. Even if they did give poachers quotas, says Mr. Kroese, they would be tiny compared to the amount he and others poach.

Kroese admits that raising awareness about the plight of the abalone is an uphill battle. "It's hard to get people excited about abalones. It's not like a panda or an elephant. It's a snail. It sits on a rock. It doesn't come when you call," said Kroese. "But it's rapidly heading towards extinction."

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