for National Geographic News
South Africa's law-enforcement authorities are engaged in an armed
battle to save the country's abalone stocks from extinction at the hands
of poachers and international smuggling syndicates.
The giant sea snail is prized by gourmets, particularly in Asia, as a delicacy reputed to have aphrodisiac properties. The animal is known for its ability to clamp itself to rocks under its large, flat, ear-shaped shell. The inner iridescent layer of its shell is itself sought after as material for beads and other ornaments.
South Africa's abalone war is pitting police, soldiers, and environmental officials against gun-toting gangsters involved in an extremely lucrative smuggling trade, especially to East Asia.
Tons of abalone have been confiscated, scores of people arrested, and large amounts of property seized in a joint anti-poaching initiative called Operation Neptune. The initiative was established last year between South Africa's Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism (DEAT), the police, and the national defense force.
Still the plunder continues.
"The extraordinary high value of abalone and the involvement of organized crime syndicates have resulted in poachers resorting to more desperate and violent measures," said Horst Kleinschmidt, the deputy director-general of DEAT.
Gangsters and Gun Battles
Poaching is most intense along a rugged coastline straddling the confluence of the Indian and the Atlantic Oceans at the southern tip of Africa and along a 100-mile (160-kilometer) stretch of South Africa's Western Cape coast.
The new breed of gangster poachers has become so brazen, and state law enforcement agencies so stretched, that the country's biggest sea products company, Irvin & Johnson, has hired a private security firm to defend its abalone farms against raids.
Some of the security firm's operatives are former special-force soldiers who fought in the country's border wars during the apartheid era. They now patrol the coastal farms and apprehend poachers who have regularly been cutting perimeter fences and causing damage to the abalone stocks being propagated along the shore, and also by trampling over these to get to the wild abalone among the rocks farther out in the ocean.
Abalone farming is seen as one way of diminishing the crisis, as it could provide a regular supply for the heavy demand. However, the farms were started up only recently, and it takes about seven years for the abalone to reach a size where they may be harvested.
Meanwhile, the entry into abalone smuggling of crime syndicates, including Chinese triads, has resulted in shootouts between police and gangsters in crowded South African city streets, sending shoppers fleeing or diving for cover.
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