Tim Butcher

How shellfish is that?

Tim Butcher says that abalone poachers are bringing terror to sleepy seaside towns in South Africa

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You can forget car-jacking, mugging and necklacing. In South Africa the worst crime problem centres on an oddly shaped bottom-dweller.

Known locally as perlemoen but elsewhere as abalone, the seawater shellfish has sparked a poaching and smuggling racket that is outgrowing all other crime in a country widely held to be the world's most criminal. Poachers have been drowned by rivals, gun battles have erupted in supposedly sleepy seaside resorts, and customs officials have been bribed on an industrial scale. And the whole thing is being choreographed by Chinese triads.

The situation is so critical that a joint police, coastguard and army task-force has been set up under Operation Neptune to deal with the crisis. And a special abalone court has been convened near Cape Town to try nothing but cases connected with the shellfish. There are already enough outstanding cases to keep the court going for three years.

The problem for South Africa is that its abalone is not just the common-or-garden 'pink abalone' that is farmed by the ton in California and elsewhere. Off Africa's southern tip the wild abalone is of an altogether more upmarket quality. It is 'beige abalone' or Haliotis midae, to be more Linnaean, and for the world's great consumers of abalone this makes a world of difference – a difference for which they are willing to pay.

The abalone-eating capital of the world just happens to be in Asia, and when Asian connoisseurs get interested in a delicacy the sums of money involved soon make criminals pay attention. The vast prices commanded by the scarce 'beige abalone', and its supposed aphrodisiac qualities, by gastronomes in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong have led triads to set up a criminal web stretching halfway round the world.

They have set up poaching syndicates which steal the abalone from its natural habitat, illegal canning factories and cross-border smuggling routes. Light aircraft nipping illicitly over the border into Swaziland have crashed because they are overloaded with abalone.

Abalone poaching is also having a disastrous effect on South Africa's wider criminal community. Bulelani Ngcuka, the national director for public prosecutions, recently highlighted a sinister side-effect, which is that the triads are now paying poachers partly in mandrax, which is produced in Asia and smuggled into South Africa for the poachers to sell on at great profit to local addicts. Mandrax is poor man's crack cocaine, and it is highly addictive and dangerous. Thanks to abalone it is now the fastest-growing illegal narcotic in South Africa's drug-using underclass.

The smuggling network has its roots in the coastal waters along the Garden Route, South Africa's pretty southern coastline which is visited each year by thousands of British tourists. Spots such as Hermanus in the Western Cape, a quaint seaside resort with an above average number of fish-and-chip restaurants and frilly curtained bed-and-breakfasts, have become hotbeds of crime. Gunfights are common between rival abalone smugglers, and many of the local police are in the pocket of the abalone gangsters.

It all started modestly enough in the late 1990s when a few hardy locals found that they could earn good money by donning wetsuits – the sea is very cold down here – and wading a few yards into the ocean surf, the habitat of the abalone, a palm-sized mollusc with an ear-shaped shell and strong, muscular foot.

Chinese middlemen would pay £1 for each abalone, which meant that poaching could be very lucrative. All it took was the ability to swim and a screwdriver to lever the abalone off the rocky sea bed. A morning's work in a well-populated abalone bed could earn several hundred pounds – a huge sum in a country with more than six million unemployed.

Back in Asia, the South African abalone (which can be smuggled dried, canned or, which commands the best price of all, alive) was fetching ludicrous prices, as much as £10 each, and this demand soon worked its way back to the wild abalone beds near Hermanus. Poaching syndicates went to work on an industrial scale, investing in speedboats with which to escape capture by the coastguard, and buying more and more weapons.

It was police work of the most old-fashioned type that broke the first big abalone syndicate. A patrol officer quite literally smelled 'something fishy' in the smart Johannesburg suburb of Bryanston. A search of a large private house found a double garage containing no cars but 16 huge chest refrigerators. Inside the fridges, the officer found thousands and thousands of abalone, rotting quietly after a lengthy power failure.

The Chinese house-owner was found to be part of a smuggling syndicate, buying abalone from the south coast, shipping it up to Johannesburg and then flying it out on the regular flights to Singapore and Hong Kong.

Down on the coast the crime was growing exponentially. In 1997 the beach resort town of Betty's Bay reported 33 cases of abalone poaching. Last year it had 495 cases. Betty's Bay has a beach frontage that is only two miles long which means that, on average, holiday-home owners can sit on their sun terraces and watch at least one arrest each day.

'It might sound fun, but I can assure you it is all terrifying,' one holiday-home owner says. 'The poachers walk down to the beach through our gardens and they watch us watching them. They came to our door one day and told my wife she would be killed if we called the police. The situation is horrible.'

Joint operations involving the police, army and airforce helicopters are now commonplace in tourist spots like Gans Bay. But these swoops net only a few poachers and for every one caught there are plenty more in the shanty townships along the south coast where millions of black and coloured South Africans live in poverty. Spare a thought for the poor abalone which now faces extinction. Tom Peschak, a marine biologist at the University of Cape Town, says wild stocks of abalone are now less than 10 per cent of what they were five years ago, a decline attributed solely to poaching and smuggling. 'Wild abalone really is in trouble down here,' he says. 'Mother Nature made it vulnerable to attack because it takes so long to reach reproductive age and its larvae are not capable of travelling very far. So once you rip it off the sea bed, it is unlikely ever to return. Everything stands against the species down here at the moment, and wild abalone is facing extinction.' This Hong Kong restaurant-goers might bear in mind when they next see abalone on the menu.

Tim Butcher is Africa correspondent of the Daily Telegraph.