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Passion drives the law in perlemoen war

Staff Reporter

The war to halt perlemoen (abalone) poaching has pitched R180-a-kilogram divers on the one side against R4 000-a-month marine inspectors on the other, MPs heard on Wednesday during a briefing to members of Parliament's environmental affairs portfolio committee.

The war to halt perlemoen (abalone) poaching has pitched R180-a-kilogram divers on the one side against R4 000-a-month marine inspectors on the other, MPs heard on Wednesday.

A briefing to members of Parliament’s environmental affairs portfolio committee by Table Mountain National Park (TMNP) marine unit operations manager Robin Adams revealed stark contrasts between the opposing forces.

“We pay our entry-level staff R4 000 a month. To do law enforcement, that’s not a salary as far as I’m concerned. These people need to be rewarded for what they’re doing. It’s passion that drives them all,” he said.

In contrast, the syndicate bosses and their henchmen are all wealthy.

“Abalone gets sold for anything from R160 to R180 a kilogram by the diver who harvests it, and up to $450 [about R2 700 a kilogram] for the top guy when it is exported ... you’re talking huge amounts of money.”

The equipment the poachers use is expensive. “An abalone diver goes into the water with R20 000- or R30 000-worth of equipment on his back, but that same individual [when caught] stands in front of the court and explains how poor he is, and how he doesn’t have a job.”

Investigation

Adams said his 21-member unit is making, on average, 79 arrests a month, of which 80% to 90% are abalone related. Currently, about 40% of those arrested are convicted.

He called for a rethink on the way poaching cases are handled.

“Our job ends when we hand the docket over to the SAPS [South African Police Service] detective. This is one of the shortfalls of our particular area. It would be fantastic if we could be appointed to investigate [these] crimes. I think we’d have a much higher prosecution rate because the passion is there.”

He said the poachers are very sophisticated. “They’re not just normal people diving to put food on the table; they are doing it for pure economic reasons. There’s no other reason for it.

“One of our very successful busts was in October last year. Just to give you an idea of the sophistication of these people ... The whole crew came down from Port Elizabeth. They had six boats on the water, 19 cars and 40 divers. They dived for about two months.”

In the end, his unit arrested them.

But poachers are learning to “adapt” to new legislation. “In most cases, what the guys do is, if we catch three people, at least one will be somebody without a criminal record. They’ll plead guilty for the other three, and they’ll get off with a fine. This is more or less the poachers’ modus operandi.”

Before they were disbanded, the special so-called “green” courts had handled cases of poachers who were arrested with 100 or more perlemoen.

“So the guys would dive 80 to 90 abalone, [up to] four five, six or seven times a day. Because they knew, if they got caught with 80 abalone, they wouldn’t have to go to green court.”

Crime link

On links between poaching and other crime, Adams said a study conducted in Betty’s Bay on the Cape south coast had shown an interesting correlation between wave height—an indication of bad weather, stopping poachers putting to sea—and burglaries in the town.

“The higher the wave height, the higher the [number of] burglaries; the lower the wave height, the lower the burglaries. There’s a definite link between poaching and [other] crime.”

Adams told MPs not a single member of his unit is a full-time employee. “We’re going into our fourth year, and every single staff member, including myself, is on a one-year renewable contract. We’re not permanently employed, yet we want to do this job,” he said.

There are also no study courses for those who want to become marine inspectors. “If I’m a matriculant and I want to do marine law enforcement, I can’t go and study for it. There’s no course available for that.”

For this reason, newly established courses for environmental-management inspectors are very exciting. “Finally, we’re going to have an avenue for staff to better themselves,” he said.

The briefing comes a week after Environment Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk delayed—after pressure from permit holders and fishing communities—plans to stop all commercial harvesting of perlemoen.

Scientists have warned South Africa’s perlemoen stocks are close to being wiped out, mainly due to widespread poaching of the resource.—Sapa

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