Sunday Times

State unlikely ‘winner’ as poachers plunder sea

Millions from auctions of confiscate­d contraband give marine unit a ’financial stake’ in illicit trade


THE South African Revenue Service has warned that the illicit trade in abalone has become a threat to national security.

In another twist, the Department of Agricultur­e, Forestry and Fisheries has been accused of complicity in the escalating trade, which has seen a growing influx of players from neighbouri­ng African countries.

The Sunday Times has establishe­d that abalone worth at least R63-million was given to the department by law enforcemen­t agencies — including SARS and the Hawks — between April last year and March this year.

The confiscate­d molluscs, highly sought after in Asian countries, are auctioned by the department.

However, department­al officials have failed to divulge just how much it had raked in from the auctions.

Beverley Schäfer, chairwoman of the Western Cape legislatur­e’s standing committee on economic opportunit­ies, tourism and agricultur­e, said it had asked the department and the minister, Senzeni Zokwana, to account for the abalone, but it had been ignored.

Schäfer said the auctioning of the abalone implies the government has become a major stakeholde­r in the illegal trade.

“The fact that 30% to 50% of Marine and Coastal Management’s budget is derived from the sale of confiscate­d abalone creates a perverse incentive,” said Schäfer.

“This could lead to MCM having a direct interest in maintainin­g the illegal abalone poaching.”

MCM is a unit in the department and is responsibl­e for policing the poaching of marine resources, including abalone.

Last month SARS senior manager Ashika Pillay told the standing committee that the illegal abalone trade had become a national security threat.

“It is no longer just an environmen­tal crime, it has become a transnatio­nal crime and it is affecting the interests of the state,” said Pillay.

She confirmed that abalone seized by SARS is handed over to the department, which has its own “auctioning procedures”.

Abagold, a company which legally cultivates abalone, has pointed out that abalone poached from South Africa has reached 2 500 tons per year, ac- LUCRATIVE CRIME: Police officials sort through abalone confiscate­d from poachers in the Western Cape cording to import statistics from Hong Kong last year.

This is 10 times the total amount the government allows to be legally harvested.

According to wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic Internatio­nal, about 1 723 tons were poached in 2012.

SARS told the standing committee that vast amounts of abalone are seized at border checkpoint­s and ports, including the Beit Bridge post to Zimbabwe.

According to Schäfer, Zimbabwe and Swaziland export “high quantities” of dried abalone to Hong Kong despite being landlocked countries.

“More recent reports state that it is recorded as imports from South Africa. Dried abalone is considered to be illegally poached abalone. We need to understand from the Department of Agricultur­e, Forestry and Fisheries how confiscate­d poached abalone is sold,” said Schäfer.

“Are the correct customs regulation­s followed by [the department] and why is this practice of selling confiscate­d poached abalone allowed? We have requested that SARS investigat­e the allegation­s.”

The department did not respond to requests for comment.

Schäfer said gangsters operemploy­ee, ating in the poaching industry often exchange drugs such as tik for abalone.

A report commission­ed by Abagold found that drug use has increased by 70% over the past two years among primary school children in communitie­s where poachers are most active. These include areas such as Zwelihle, Mount Pleasant and Hawston near Hermanus.

“The level of substance abuse in [these areas] was highlighte­d to us when our longest-serving Clive Prince, was stabbed to death in 2014 by a youngster allegedly under the influence of a substance,” said Abagold spokeswoma­n Lou-Ann Lubbe.

Communitie­s in the Overstrand area have been plunged into a state of lawlessnes­s.

In Hawston, just a few hundred metres from the harbour, abalone poachers launch boats in broad daylight near the ruins of the SAPS dog unit’s former base. The unit was used to crack down on poaching and drug dealing.

The building was torched in 2012 along with seven police vehicles, and a policeman was injured in a shooting shortly after an alleged poacher, aged 19, died.

A Hawston abalone diver, who asked not to be named, claimed the youngster had been hit by a police patrol boat.

Abalone diver Michael Würbach said brazen poachers were able to hold entire communitie­s hostage. But he said community members were fed up and were willing to break the law to stop the poaching.

“And if there’s a body in the bush who gives a s**t? There are going to be dead bodies if this s**t doesn’t stop,” said Würbach.

That 30% to 50% of MCM's budget comes from abalone sales creates a perverse incentive It is not just an environmen­tal crime, it is a transnatio­nal crime affecting the interests of the state

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 ?? Picture: TMG ??
Picture: TMG

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