Secret life of a poacher…

Poachers equipment costs usually in the region of about R20 000 and the money is made up by diving illegally in the waters to catch some of the most valuable treasures the ocean has to offer.

Poaching is a criminal offence but there are those doing it simply to live another day.

The majority of the community of Hangberg use the ocean to fish for their next meal or to create a better life for themselves and their families.
Around 5am every morning, Jonathan Dama leaves his Hangberg home in search of that better life, spending hours under water catching crayfish and collecting abalone, illegally.  
Jonathan knows his actions could land him a lengthy sentence behind bars, something he is all too familiar with after already had his fair share of runs-in with police.
“We must do what we can do because many people in this community don’t have work and the ocean is the closest thing for them to get their next meal or some money to keep them going,” Jonathan said.
“This is no game. We risk our lives to do this and nobody understands that this community could be so much better if we had permits.”
Jonathan agreed to meet with the Sentinel at a secret location at the harbour, but was not afraid to share his name, as he felt many could learn from his ordeals.
For the past 18 years, “Tin Tin”, as Jonathan is fondly known in the community, dived the waters of Sandy Bay, Hout Bay and even as far as Robben Island.
His diving career started when he realised he needed to leave the life of crime behind, having spent most of his youth breaking into homes and being on the run.
He grew up with foster parents, as he spent most of his childhood at St James House, a home for orphans and neglected children in Hout Bay.
After accumulating a number of cases against his name, he decided to dive the waters of Hout Bay in search of crayfish and abalone. 
His diving career has come with its fair share of challenges, which included being stranded on an island, surviving a capsized boat and being arrested on a few occasions. 

On Boxing Day last year, Jonathan was out on yet another poaching mission, this time heading to Robben Island. The boat he was travelling in left him stranded on the island and he was forced to swim from the island with his haul of abalone.

“I didn’t want to waste all that time in the water and I decided just to swim home. It was about 10pm at night and I remember how tired I was, but I had a client waiting and I needed to get the ‘perly’ to town,” he said.

He landed up on Clifton First Beach, but the ‘perly’ never reached the client as police were waiting for him.

A month before this, he was travelling on a boat to yet another poaching location, when it capzised and he was forced to watch two of his fellow poachers drown in the ocean.

“I have been through so much already and I still continue today. Even if I was through so much, I still get crap from police and the government, but they don’t understand that we put our lives on the line just to survive and they end up making billions because they want to choose who gets permits and who does not,” Jonathan said, speaking as his head constantly turns to check who is watching.

“This is a very dangerous game, but people have to play this game if they want to see another day.”

It’s not only a battle in the water to get hold of crayfish and abalone, but on land, it’s a battle having to get their product sold due to the competition.

Jonathan explained that poachers usually work through a “middleman” who end up paying them bulk prices for their stock. However, with many poachers lurking, his deal could be jeopardised in an instant.

“I can have somebody in front of me agreeing to pay my asking price and in that moment, a diver can get out of the water and then offer that person R20 less and they will go with him. It’s a constant battle, but we have to make it work,” Jonathan said.

Angelo Joseph is a Hangberg resident and the community liaison officer for GMC, a company recently based at the Hout Bay Harbour, responsible for removing the dirt from the bed of the ocean.

Mr Joseph knows all too well about the poaching saga within his community and stressed that it was important to note that many of the poachers had no other alternative.

“Lots of the men in this community feel the need to support their families and they get turned down for work and choose to dive illegally just to feed their families,” he said.

Mr Joseph added that government officials failed to provide the necessary permits to people within Hangberg, predominantly known as a “fishing village”.

“You will never be able to stop poaching. The government would rather end up wasting money on building walls around the harbour instead of sending these guys for training or giving them permits to dive in these waters,” he added, confirming that GMC had already sent a group of former poachers for training and they are now working for the company as divers.

“The market is too big and there are always people looking to pick up some at cost price through the poachers and for most of these poachers, it’s a way to keep their families afloat.”

The life of a diver is not easy at all, as many days, they are forced to live off bread, powdered cooldrink and 50c chips. They also end up having to spend nearly R18 000 on diving equipment, money mostly accumulated from the stock retrieved from the ocean.

Jonathan felt that Hangberg was handed the short end of the stick, as the governmental department managing the resources from the ocean refused to issue them with permits for fishing.

“We take like 5% from the ocean and they end up making billions of rands selling big contracts to big companies like I&J and Sea Harvest, but we get forgotten as the people who need to fish in order to survive,” Jonathan said.

The hardened, fearless character he displays quickly softened when he started speaking about what he does with the money he makes off poaching. He lends small amounts of money to people in need and is fond of buying chips and sweets for children in Hangberg.

“I love my community and I know I have not always been the best of people, but everybody has it in them to change and become better. I chose this life because through this, I can help so many, including myself,” he said, glaring over the Hout Bay Harbour waters.

Jonathan believes nearly 90% of the Hangberg community chooses the illegal route of pulling resources from the ocean, but said he could understand why people turned towards poaching.

“If people from Hangberg were granted permits, you would see the crime levels decreasing, you would see less murders, less people being robbed and less problems in our community. When people don’t have, they turn to drugs and crime, but this is what the government wants and that is why they won’t grant us those permits.”

The Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries disagreed with the sentiments that “poaching is a way of life”.

The department’s spokesperson, Albi Modise, said Hout Bay was currently regarded as a “hot spot” for poaching with several arrests having already been made with a number of investigations still ongoing.

“The penalties vary from fines to imprisonment of the suspects as well as confiscation of assets used in the commission of the offence,” he said.

Mr Modise said some poachers were targeting areas such as Robben Island for abalone and rock lobster, using the Hout Bay Harbour to launch their illegal operations from.

He added that the waters are constantly patrolled by the coastal and sea patrols, but getting a firm grip on the situation still remains a challenge: “It has always been and remains the department’s objective to bring poaching in general under control.”

The Hout Bay police station were sent a list of questions by the Sentinel News regarding the matter, but failed to respond at the time of going to print.

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