Abalone poach­ing: lift­ing the lid on wildlife crime

Anal­y­sis

The New Age (Gauteng) - - COMMENT - Greg War­cho­lis is pro­fes­sor of the crim­i­nal jus­tice de­part­ment at North­ern Michi­gan Univer­sity

WILDLIFE poach­ing has long been a sub­ject of in­ter­est in academia. Re­search by en­vi­ron­men­tal sci­en­tists mostly fo­cus on the im­pact of these crimes on wildlife pop­u­la­tions and their habi­tat. Crim­i­nol­o­gists in­ter­ested in dif­fer­ent types of en­vi­ron­men­tal crimes have started study­ing poach­ing.

This is be­cause of the re­al­i­sa­tion that poach­ing af­fects more than wildlife. It has im­pli­ca­tions for de­vel­op­ing na­tions’ economies and of­ten in­volves transna­tional crim­i­nal en­ter­prises.

The­o­ries de­vel­oped to un­der­stand street crim­i­nals be­hav­iour are be­ing ap­plied to green crim­i­nol­ogy. The hope is that this will help iden­tify the causes of wildlife crimes, pro­vide of­fender pro­files and fa­cil­i­tate prac­ti­cal so­lu­tions. One of the fo­cus ar­eas is per­lemoen poach­ing. It’s an in de­mand and ex­pen­sive del­i­cacy, with farmed abalone fish­eries com­mon in the West­ern Cape.

It is le­gal to har­vest wild abalone but poach­ing in the wild fish­eries has in­creased since the mid-1990s. This is partly be­cause of the so­cial, po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic changes in South Africa af­ter apartheid. A weak econ­omy, high un­em­ploy­ment and in­ef­fec­tive polic­ing have con­trib­uted to the rise in per­lemoen poach­ing. So too has the pres­ence of Asian crim­i­nal en­ter­prises and de­mand for abalone from

Asia.

In 2013 I con­ducted an ex­ploratory anal­y­sis of per­lemoen poach­ing in a South African na­tional park to see whether the “rou­tine ac­tiv­i­ties the­ory” might be use­ful in tack­ling the prob­lem. This the­ory, which falls un­der the con­cept of sit­u­a­tional crime pre­ven­tion, con­tends that crime hap­pens when three el­e­ments con­verge – a mo­ti­vated of­fender, a suit­able tar­get and a lack of se­cu­rity.

Mo­ti­vated of­fend­ers are the op­por­tunis­tic crim­i­nals of­ten present in so­cially disor­gan­ised com­mu­ni­ties. Suit­able tar­gets are ac­ces­si­ble, valu­able and de­sir­able. Guardian­ship in­cludes law en­force­ment and phys­i­cal bar­ri­ers. Ac­cord­ing to the the­ory, crime rates vary based on changes to these el­e­ments.

Ap­ply­ing the the­ory in a na­tional park

The con­cept of sit­u­a­tional crime pre­ven­tion is use­ful in wildlife crime re­search. It draws on other the­o­ret­i­cal ap­proaches like op­por­tu­nity the­ory. Op­por­tu­nity the­ory is con­cerned with the avail­abil­ity of op­por­tu­ni­ties to com­mit crime. Among the na­tional parks I vis­ited was Ta­ble Moun­tain in the West­ern Cape.

It’s a well es­tab­lished and fre­quently vis­ited park in the densely pop­u­lated Cape Town area.

It has a full staff of rangers in­clud­ing an in­ves­tiga­tive unit, mod­ern in­fras­truc­ture to fa­cil­i­tate tourism and con­trolled ac­cess from land. There’s a marine pro­tected area off­shore that is home to abalone. The rangers didn’t de­ter mo­ti­vated of­fend­ers from tar­get­ing the park. Some poach­ers were sub­sis­tence hun­ters. Oth­ers were small-scale com­mer­cial poach­ers who legally en­tered the park by car, tak­ing dozens of the mol­luscs at a time.

The area was also tar­geted by large com­mer­cial op­er­a­tions that en­tered the marine pro­tected ar­eas in boats and dis­patched scuba divers to poach hun­dreds of abalone.

Those are the of­fend­ers. Then there’s the “suit­able tar­get”, abalone it­self. In 2013 poach­ers sold abalone for $10 (R120) to some­times $40 (R480) a kilo­gram. The value in­creased as it moved to traf­fick­ers and over­seas whole­salers, where it reached a few hun­dred dol­lars per kilo­gram.

Some fi­nal re­tail prices have ex­ceeded $3 000/kg in Hong Kong’s mar­kets

Se­cu­rity makes the dif­fer­ence

The key pre­lim­i­nary find­ing from the re­search was how vari­a­tions in proper se­cu­rity af­fected poach­ing. A park’s fenc­ing had lit­tle in­flu­ence on of­fender be­hav­iour since land­based poach­ers could legally en­ter by pre­tend­ing to be tourists.

The ma­jor fac­tor was the size and ca­pa­bil­ity of ranger units. They need to con­tin­u­ously watch vis­i­tors and boats near the abalone habi­tat. Poach­ers quickly ex­ploited the lack of se­cu­rity in these ar­eas.

So what are the pos­si­ble so­lu­tions? These may in­clude more re­mote sur­veil­lance from fixed cam­eras in park­ing lots and along the coast­line, and by drones over the wa­ter.

Fund­ing for these im­prove­ments could come from charg­ing in­creased fees for park ad­mis­sion or fish­ing li­censes.

Adding more rangers to mon­i­tor park vis­i­tors for sus­pi­cious ac­tiv­ity along with fur­ther en­hanc­ing the park’s ded­i­cated anti-poach­ing of­fi­cers would be ef­fec­tive and is nec­es­sary. – the­con­ver­sa­tion.com

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