“Abalone poaching is a daily and nightly occurrence.”
I’m bounding around the coast of Cape Point with a senior Environmental Crimes Investigation unit member when he shows me all the spots where he has found poachers hiding in the Cape of Good Hope. He points to a spot where a few weeks before, a group of six poachers had camped out for days under a clump of milkwoods next to the historical kalkoond.
How many times have I walked these trails, waded in these waters and driven these roads, not knowing the amount of criminal activity that may have been taking place only metres away?
The coast around Cape Point is alive with the stories of the abalone collections the team has intercepted, the poachers they have apprehended, and the suspects who got away.
The ECI ranger, who will go unnamed in fear of being targeted by poachers, bounds over to a spot a few metres towards the beach where he found bags of abalone. “This is where they left the abalone for their syndicate to collect,” he says.
"And last night, we found a guy here, and pursued him all the way out of the park," he says, gesturing to a path along the road.
In the first ten months of 2017 alone, the team seized 15, 674 abalone with an estimated value of over R2,99 million.
“Poachers face a high risk coming to the area, and know the odds are they will either be caught by the anti-poaching team, or at least encounter them whenever they enter the park,” says the ranger.
There are six restricted no-take zones in the Table Mountain Marine Protected Area (MPA), and if anyone is even caught with fishing or diving gear in these areas, they are in violation of the law.
While the team is a deterrent, poachers still chance it. The vast networks they service and the financial reward make the risk all the more worth taking. Their syndicates are more than likely most of the time linked to other major criminals, and organised crime, and there are a number of players in every game. From divers, to collectors, to couriers, to sellers, to traders, and traffickers, one operation can involve dozens of people – all well organised and protected. These individuals change identity often and disappear off the radar after a warrant of arrest is out.
Before November this year, the ECI team had arrested 83 poachers in the park. “But a lot of them disappear before they go to trial,” he says.
Many suspects also drown while out diving, and on many occasions ECI members and the police have found the bodies of poachers in the sea, with abalone strapped to their diving gear.
The many successful arrests made are a result of the ECI team knowing the modus operandi of these poachers, and running endless patrols in the park day and night. “One of the suspects said to me, ‘Mr, don’t you sleep?’ when we caught him.
But the man hours and risk of encountering poachers on almost a daily basis does come at a price.
The ranger has had hits out on his life, and has avoided death at the hands of poachers on many occasions. Once, when pursuing a suspect in the shallow waves along the beach, the poacher managed to hold the ranger’s head under the water in an attempt to drown him. “I managed to break free. He was eventually charged and sentenced for attempted murder,” he says.
The high-market value of abalone meat – a delicacy in the Far East – has led to the rise in illegal harvesting of these invertebrates, which are now closer to extinction than ever before.
Abalone, also known as perlemoen, are listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List. Any worse off, and they would be extinct in the wild. WWF SASSI has also placed abalone on the Red List, meaning one should never, ever buy them, in the interest of sustainability, unless proof of their commercial farming origins is provided. Perlemoen take eight to 10 years to reach their legal fishing size in designated commercial zones, according to the Two Oceans Aquarium. But their small size and high value have led to a poach epidemic.
“There is a serious problem. But we make a concerted effort to try to reduce it and prevent extinction from happening,” he says.
In 15 incidents this year alone, the ECI Cape Town members prevented 106 poachers from entering the Marine Protected Area and poaching abalone – a victory in itself.
Note to readers: This piece was originally intended for publication in a nationally-distributed magazine, but the ranger decided at the last moment to remove his name for fear of being victimised and identified by poachers. While it was no longer suitable for print for the lack of detail, the team were still eager for it to be published, so here you go.