Poachers’ illegal haul: Abalone, worth R5m, was found during a raid at a house in Glenvista in southern Johannesburg. Picture: MARIANNE SCHWANKHART/ THE TIMES
Poachers’ illegal haul: Abalone, worth R5m, was found during a raid at a house in Glenvista in southern Johannesburg. Picture: MARIANNE SCHWANKHART/ THE TIMES

The government says it is increasing its marine guard services in a bid to curb rising levels of abalone poaching in SA.

Demand for abalone by Chinese gangs has caused SA’s stocks of the marine molluscs to be depleted at a record rate, costing the country $60m annually, according to a report this week by wildlife trade monitoring group TRAFFIC.

Chinese criminal syndicates are said to use crystal meth as a reward for gangs in the Western Cape to dive for the delicacy.

TRAFFIC said the country’s coasts had been stripped of at least 96-million abalone in the past 18 years, with 9.6-million poached in 2016 alone.

"These are almost the highest — if not the highest — poaching levels we have seen in the last twenty or more years," the report says.

Despite a mounting risk that abalone, a type of sea snail, could become extinct, they were removed from the CITES list of at-risk species in 2010.

High market value

Abalone has a high market value and is one of the most sought-after delicacies locally and abroad. According to TRAFFIC, the illegal harvesting of abalone in SA has surpassed legal quotas.

"We are increasing our marine guard services to cope with the pressure," said Khaye Nkwanyana, spokesman for agriculture, fisheries & forestry minister Senzeni Zokwana.

"We are also working with the police task force on a 24-hour basis."

The department was, together with environmental affairs which is battling rhino poaching, looking at reviving special green courts in which "speedy and specialised prosecutions with judges who understand the subject matter will pass severe judgments on the poachers", Nkwanyana said.

SA’s first green court dates back to 2003 in Hermanus where it was established as a pilot project run by the then departments of environmental affairs & tourism and of justice.

It functioned as a regional court and had an 85% conviction rate in 2005, a year before the department of justice decided to close it. This was when the department halted all specialised courts unless they were mandated by a specific law, such as the equality court.

Since then the reintroduction of environmental courts was first mooted by then environmental & water affairs minister Buyelwa Sonjica, especially to fight water crimes.

The courts were meant to work through dedicated time slots in the regional or district courts, supported by trained prosecutors.

DA MP and agriculture, forestry and fisheries spokesperson Pieter van Dalen recently said there was no political will in the department to deal with abalone poaching.

"I do not think it is in their [the department’s] interest to deal with the issue because they make money from the abalone that is confiscated," he said.

The DA called on Zokwana to commit himself to a firm plan on how his department would open the sale of confiscated abalone to public and parliamentary scrutiny.

With AFP

phakathib@businesslive.co.za