In September last year, the provincial government’s standing committee on economic opportunities was told that in the past seven years, more than R136 million in poached abalone had been seized by the Hawks.
The announcement by Colonel Jacques Visser of the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (DPCI) buoyed spirits that efforts to curb poaching of the resource, known as “white gold” on the black market, were perhaps beginning to pay off.
Joint operations with the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) were reaping reward, including the confiscation of abalone worth R1 million in Hout Bay in May.
The tide seemed to be turning, at least in terms of statistics presented by the policing authorities.
This week, the Sentinel went in search of an area known as the “abalone graveyards”, a secluded cove of beach occurring on the back side of Karbonkelberg near Seal Island.
For years, this spit of land has been the seat of poaching activities in Hout Bay, accessible by both land and sea to syndicates operating in the area. The abalone graveyards are so named because of the thousands of abalone shells that carpet the beach, shucked of their meat due to the weight the husks present poachers carrying bags of illegal catch up the steep hill towards Hangberg.
Given the high incidences of mugging on Karbonkelberg, the Sentinel was accompanied by a local guide who has known this terrain all his life. As a child, he played joyfully among the rocks, believing there was no better “backyard” in the world.
Himself a poacher before becoming one of the more fortunate Hangberg residents to get full-time work, he has seen poaching change the character of his community as people become desperate for money-making opportunities.
As fish factories have closed and concessions for small-scale fishers have dried up, so more and more residents have turned to poaching to put food on the table, he says.
Though there is an apocryphal air to graveyards, accessing them is not difficult. Emerging from the upper reaches of Hangberg, known as “Die Sloot”, hikers soon find themselves looking down on a majestic stretch of coastline. Three hundred metres below, seals frolic in the waves and bark incessantly in one of the most natural settings imaginable.
But from this vantage point, something else becomes apparent. A bed of white, even lighter than the sands of the distant beach, indicates the poaching hot spot.
According to the guide, law enforcement agencies descended on the area about four years ago to “smash up” the weathered shells. This action was aimed at making poachers aware that the authorities were aware of their activities in the area, but also to prevent traders operating in Hout Bay Harbour selling the shells to tourists.
But while the operation may have had an effect in the short term, it was immediately clear that it has not done so in the long term. On the pathway leading to the beach, the Sentinel encountered fresh shells whose odour still pierced the air, suggesting they had only recently been discarded.
A little way on, the abalone graveyards came into full view. Thousands upon thousands of shells littered the beach, on which several small boats had been left awaiting divers returning in the middle of the night to plumb the seas for white gold.
Empty beer bottles and a braai grill suggested a group had camped overnight.
Underfoot, sun-baked shells crunched loudly with each step. Several layers of shells were in evidence, running all the way into the ocean where a natural slipway for boats occurred.
“It’s actually much worse in the sea,” the guide said.
“There are others areas along this coast where you will see graveyards like this, but it’s more dangerous to get there. Here people can come over the ‘Nek’ (crest of the hill in Hangberg) and come down to the sea. The poachers take out the meat because the shells are very heavy. Can you imagine carrying a heavy bag up that steep mountain?”
He said community members who poached were aware of the environmental implications, but felt they had “no other choice”.
“This all comes down to jobs. We used to be able to be employed as fishermen, going out to sea and selling our catch to the fish factories. But that has all changed now. People don’t want to be poachers, but they feel there is no other way for them to make money.”
Some commentators have suggested that in order to bring the poaching situation under control, more emphasis should be placed on establishing commercial abalone farms, such as those seen on the West Coast.
“The community would want that,” the guide said. “It would create jobs again.”
The scenario at the abalone graveyards seems to be more in line with concerning figures presented at the DAFF Abalone Indaba at the Cape Town International Convention Centre at the beginning of last year.
Here it was revealed that more than seven million abalone were poached in 2014, and that the last time the numbers were that high was in 2003, when it is estimated that more than eight million perlemoen were poached.
Pierre de Villiers, coastal programme manager at CapeNature, said the graveyards were “a lot worse” a few years ago, but poaching was still “rife” in the area.
“One of the problems we face is that there is not a lot of money to put boats in the water to monitor the poachers. We have to put more vessels in the water if we are going to have any impact,” he said.
Although he recognised that people in Hangberg faced many socio-economic challenges, for many poaching had become “a way of life”.
“Poaching is now linked to drug dealing and organised crime. There is big money involved. I myself have spoken to poachers and told them to come and work for me at CapeNature instead, which they would be happy to do but the money we can offer through Public Works can’t compare (to what they would make as poachers).”
With diminishing supplies of abalone, poachers were now turning to other species, such as West Coast Rock Lobster, Mr De Villiers said.
“Since January 2014, we have seen a lot of poaching of small rock lobster, which has made that species less sustainable as well.” Mr De Villiers was sceptical about the viability of commercial abalone farms as a means by which to curb poaching.
“The cost of running of an abalone farm is massive. It’s very high-tech stuff, and a farm wouldn’t employ unskilled divers, so you wouldn’t create jobs for the community.”
Mr De Villiers appealed to the public for donations to buy more vessels to monitor the coastline. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Queries sent by the Sentinel to DAFF spokesperson, Bomikazi Molapo had not been responded to at the time of going to press.