Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

When Shuhood Abader went to Kimon de Greef with the manuscript he had written in prison about his experiences as an abalone poacher, he was a man with empty pockets and a soul filled with broken glass.

Theirs is a winning combination. De Greef is a peerless writer of the Cape Peninsula who began researching abalone poaching in 2012 for a master’s degree, and Abader was a poacher with kamikaze zeal.

Abalone from the Western Cape is trafficked for huge profits by underground cartels. For 15 years Abader trawled the jagged coastline, risking his life for the expensive ornamental hermits that fetch thousands of dollars a piece in China’s luxury seafood market.

The syndicates the poacher divers supply have in the past 25 years smuggled out more than 50 tons of the animal with rich and luscious flesh. In the process, they denuded the coastline to a fretwork of barren rocks.

The narrative in Poacher reads like a saga about urban terrorism on steroids, powered by an instinct for survival and touched by theatricality: riding the waves at full moon, near-encounters with sharks and tangles with the police.

It is the story of daring, bravery, thoughtless crime, clandestine rendezvous and potent survival in the maw of wild oceans and stuttering outboard motors as the divers ruthlessly lever "pearlies", some as old as 10 years, from their roots.

It might be an inelegant comparison and certainly not an excuse, but Abader’s family was also torn from their roots when they were forcibly removed from the close-knit Muslim community of Simon’s Town to slit-throat townships like Ocean View. Deprived of their historical and profitable access to marine resources, entire fishing communities in the Western Cape began restructuring around poaching after the Group Areas Act was inflicted on them.

Over the years abalone formed a symbiotic relationship with drugs, particularly tik — sometimes in straight swaps.

Abader now lives in one room with his wife and three children (he has seven from two marriages), processing the fact that he has done time and wrecked his own backyard. "It might have been quick money, but it was not easy," he says.

A stout heart is required to face the harrowing shark-infested depths of the Western Cape, particularly when poaching at night.

"It was a chance," Abader says, "to do something different."

The abalone is unfortunate — it is so favoured by human desire that when decent work is hard to find and the government is pap-weak and corrupt, it has gained celebrity status.

During his years in prison — Abader began writing the book behind bars in 2007 — the Western Cape was transformed into a pleasure dome for wealthy tourists. After his release, he felt like an outcast.

Poacher is a cracking read, but badly produced with rubbish paper and lackadaisical editing.

"I’ll write a book and make millions," Shuhood said in a radio interview.

It has come as a nasty shock, as it has to many other writers, that books make so little money in SA.