The illegal slaughter of rhinos and elephants and the criminal trade in their horns and tusks that drives it have been in the news lately. And rightfully so. The continued widespread and bloody poaching of these magnificent animals presents a very serious threat to the integrity of many ecosystems in Africa, even when they are supposedly protected in national parks and wildlife reserves.
As vilified and unfairly maligned an animal as the shark is getting well-deserved attention because of concerns for its survival, while the plight of somewhat less glamorous, but no less endangered species makes the news much less frequently.
One such species is the abalone. In South Africa, these marine molluscs are also known as perlemoen and for years they have been under consistent assault from poachers. The primary market for abalone meat is the Far East, where it’s used in traditional medicine and as an aphrodisiac.
Perlemoen occurs along much of the South African coastline. In 2007, the South African government added them to the list of endangered species, but subsequently removed them from it in 2010 under protest from conservationists. Abalone, a culinary delicacy, is seldom seen on South African restaurant menus these days although farmed abalone can be sold and exported with government-issued permits.
Due to dwindling numbers and the rampant poaching epidemic, permits to harvest wild abalone have not been issued, even for recreational purposes, for several years. A partial list of just some of the instances in which abalone poachers have been caught red-handed in South Africa in recent times makes for scary reading — and remember this is just a selection of the instances in which authorities managed to confiscate poached abalone and the event was reported in the media:
• November 2008: 32,700 dried abalone worth R7.5 million (about $1 million) seized in Riviersonderend.
• August 2009: 5 tons of abalone confiscated in Port Elizabeth.
• February 2010: R2.3 million (more than $300,000) worth of abalone seized in the Western Cape Province.
• May 2010: More than 10,000 abalone confiscated in Cape Town.
• July 2010: 800 kilograms of abalone seized in Port Elizabeth.
• August 2010: 1.6 tons of abalone confiscated on commercial container vessels in Cape Town.
• March 2011: 500 kilograms of abalone bust at OR Tambo International Airport, Johannesburg
• July 2011: 2 tons of dried perlemoen confiscated in Cape Town
• August 2011: R12 million (more than $1.5 million) worth of abalone seized in transit between Cape Town and Johannesburg.
Where in the past, legal and sustainable harvesting of abalone provided part of the livelihood for small traditional fishing communities, the poachers typically operate on an almost industrial scale. They work as parts of international crime syndicates and use modern motor boats and scuba diving equipment. Experts estimate that their multi-million dollar business lands between 1,000 and 3,000 tons of illegal South African abalone every year.
Compare that to the total legally permitted commercial quota for the whole country in the 2006/2007 season (when permits were still issued) of merely 125 tons and the extent to which the country’s abalone stock is being depleted becomes clear. To make matters worse, Far Eastern crime cartels have been accused of laundering money by trading South African abalone for the ingredients required in the manufacture of metamphetamine and Anthrax (a synthetic drug), fuelling local drug abuse.
So if you come across abalone on a restaurant menu, please be sure to ask the owner whether it was harvested legally and sustainably.
Andreas is a book shop manager and freelance writer in Cape Town, South Africa. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath
Photo from: Stock.Xchng