Just after 2am on a gale-swept winter's night, the commander of South Africa's elite National Intervention Unit barks an order above the howling winds battering the Western Cape's Danger Point Peninsula: 'Go, go!' A constellation of torch beams pierces the darkness. Thirty-eight armed officers in combat fatigues and full body armour rush into a compound suspected of housing drug traffickers - sledgehammers make short shrift of steel gates; rubber bullets dispatch snarling guard dogs. The felons inside, all known gangsters, have previously shot at police officers attempting to seize arms and narcotics from these very premises. But tonight, law enforcement is seeking a contraband even more lucrative than marijuana or Kalashnikovs; the endangered beige abalone (Latin: Haliotis midae; Chinese: ; Afrikaans: perlemoen), a species highly prized in Chinese cuisine and traditional medicine. As the final door topples from its hinges, the gangsters flush drugs and ditch their weapons. Dust swirls in the tungsten lamplight. An officer struggles with one of the thugs, the latter only subdued by having his head pounded repeatedly against a wall. Within minutes, half a dozen men are cuffed and lie in the dirt, glaring angrily up at their captors. Around the breeze-block shack, scattered and smashed, is the detritus of a booming drugs business and the criminals' own addiction: needles, tablets, aluminium foil, shards of glass tubing - and a rather decent set of golf clubs. Amid the wreckage, an industrial-sized freezer gleams. 'This is where they keep the perlemoen,' indicates Gilbert Mmereki, Western Cape's senior marine conservation inspector and co-ordinator of the night's raid. Opening the freezer, Mmereki's face falls. 'We're too late,' he groans. 'It's gone. Recently too; you can tell by the smell of bleach. They've scrubbed inside to try and destroy any DNA evidence we could have used.' Perlemoen is one of just half a dozen abalone species found in southern Africa and the only one traded commercially. 'It grows on the Cape, nowhere else in the world,' Mmereki explains. 'If we can't intercept the poachers on the ocean or in these coastal communities where they land the catch, it's very hard to stop the consignments being smuggled to Hong Kong and China.' Hong Kong lies at the heart of the global abalone trade. Nearly half of the world's dried stock and quarter of the fresh product land at the city's air and sea ports, including legally sourced varieties from Australia, Mexico, New Zealand and the Philippines. But it is South African beige, along with two Japanese species, that remains the most coveted by Hong Kong consumers, as much for the kudos our society attaches to the consumption of any delicacy considered rare and expensive as for its purported qualities as an aphrodisiac and liver curative. THE JOURNEY FROM Hong Kong to Danger Point began after a source suggested substantial quantities of beige abalone continue to be landed here. This despite the fact that in 2007, as wild stocks neared commercial extinction, South Africa listed the animal in Appendix III of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) and implemented a ban on abalone fishing soon after. 'It's the triads; they're doing this,' the source complained. 'Indeed, Hong Kong and Chinese triads, including Wo Shing Wo and 14K, have been involved in the exploitation of abalone from the south coast of Africa for several years,' says Charles Goredema, head of the organised crime programme at the Institute for Security Studies in Cape Town. 'The evidence suggests they buy the abalone from gangs on the Western Cape then ship it back to Hong Kong via the extensive smuggling networks they've developed here since the end of apartheid.' Entire coastal communities are hired by the Cape gangs to seek out abalone. Informal work as a diver, lookout or runner is often the only opportunity people have to earn a living wage in areas where unemployment exceeds 40 per cent. With their loyalty bought, it took days of asking around in bars to find anyone willing to discuss the poaching problem. Eventually someone talked: 'We coloureds have to make a living,' rationalised the affable KR. 'Some guys buy guns and rob people. But the more sensible guy will get himself a dive suit, go into the water without harming no one, get himself some abalone and trade it for cash to pay his bills. 'On a good night, the divers, boat crew and guys helping on shore can earn HK$30,000 for poaching 100kg of abalone,' KR said. 'It's dangerous work. The cops are really into the poaching thing now. But I make [HK$3,000] for a couple of hours carting the perlemoen to Cape Town. Before, I worked at a factory and they paid me [HK$250] a day. Sorry, not a day ... a week!' While the trade is clearly lucrative, KR's view that abalone poaching 'don't hurt no one' is undermined, Goredema contends, by the fact that the triads are not simply paying the poachers and their gang masters in cash: 'Some transactions are in the form of barter, where the abalone is exchanged for drugs,' he reveals. Until five years ago, mandrax, a popular sedative on United States college campuses during the 1960s, was the narcotic of choice. Now though, Goredema believes, heroin, and more significantly, ephedrine, a precursor chemical required for the manufacture of crystal meth, are the triads' preferred instruments of exchange. Crystal meth ranks among the most harmful and addictive controlled drugs available on the streets. Known as 'ice' in Hong Kong and 'tik' in South Africa, for the sound it makes when heated in a glass pipe, its side effects include psychosis, heart attack, uncontrolled scratching of imaginary bugs under the skin and meth mouth - severe dental decay. While uptake of meth has been negligible in South Africa's eight other provinces, the drug is devastating the Western Cape, the epicentre of the abalone racket. According to Andreas Pluddemann, senior scientist with the South African Medical Research Council, addiction levels in the Cape Town area alone have risen from just a few hundred to more than 120,000 - about 4 per cent of the population - since 2004, the year the triads began exchanging ephedrine for the shellfish. To give those figures context, last year, 14,175 substance abusers were recorded in Hong Kong across all drug types, according to the Security Bureau's narcotics division. If 4 per cent of the city's population became hooked on meth, there would be an additional quarter of a million addicts in the SAR ... and a public health crisis of the highest magnitude. Two trends related to tik abuse give particular cause for concern. First, drug-related crime in the Western Cape has exploded unlike anywhere else in the country - up more than 250 per cent since 2004. And second, while the incidence of HIV appears to be stabilising across the eight other provinces, recent figures indicate that its prevalence has almost doubled here since 2005. 'The euphoria and sense of abandonment tik brings about encourage high-risk sexual behaviour, including a lack of regard for condom use,' says Pluddemann. 'We also see higher levels of promiscuity among tik users, including schoolchildren.' A colleague of Pluddemann, Dr Graeme Meintjes, runs the HIV clinical service at GF Jooste hospital, located at the heart of Cape Flats, the area to which non-white South Africans were forcibly removed under apartheid. From the busy clinical service where he and his team treat 80 patients a week, Meintjes says he has noted an increasing number of young people admitted with Aids-defining illnesses and giving a history of drug use, including tik. 'This is a growing minority and we might only be seeing the tip of the iceberg,' Meintjes warns. 'As you know, it takes on average nine years for HIV infection to progress to Aids ... we may only see the [full] effects of tik on the HIV epidemic in the next five years.' Cape Flats is home to 1.3 million impoverished residents and Jooste is their medical lifeline. Last year more than 1,000 people were murdered within a few miles of the hospital's doors. Walking through triage is like entering a scene from a Crimean war medical post, albeit with linoleum and strip lighting. Armed guards mingle with patients seated and lying in corridors; drug-resistant tuberculosis sufferers cough unremittingly next to victims of knife crime whose wounds are bandaged with blood-soaked rags. It is a typical Friday night according to Dr Choudhury, who is visiting from Bangladesh to gain experience in trauma medicine. 'We might treat 100 patients,' he says, although if they're prioritised during triage, it usually means they're in pretty bad shape.' The night shift is barely 10 minutes old when Natasha, a haggard, listless twentysomething slumped in a wheelchair, is brought into the emergency room. Her hair is matted and a pool of vomit has congealed in her lap. Clasping her arms around her trunk and moaning 'Pain' over and over, she is, says Dr Allie, a recently graduated community physician, showing the all-too common symptoms of tik psychosis. 'Our psychiatric units are under real pressure because we have so many cases like this.' Allie says that recently, a local mother, Ellen Pakkies, caused a national debate when she strangled her tik-addicted son to death after years of physical and mental abuse from him. Siding with the victim, the court sent Pakkies home a free woman. 'They can become aggressive, use knives and guns,' Allie says. Anger is rising among medical staff over the risks they must face when treating bloodthirsty gangsters in a hospital where the HIV rate among patients runs at 50 per cent. And resentment towards ethnic Chinese is now percolating through South African society. According to Senior Superintendent Lise Potgieter, one of Cape Town's most experienced organised-crime officers, most South Africans are aware of the role Chinese crime syndicates play in the abalone and drug trade. 'We arrest a bunch of Chinese at one facility and they're fined or bailed. A few weeks later we arrest the same guys at another,' says Potgieter. The perception that they are beyond the law means many South Africans now view Chinese immigrants with suspicion whether they are law abiding or not. (The latest list of South Africa's '10 most wanted' criminals has done little to alter perceptions - three are ethnic Chinese.) Is the backlash unfounded? Has Potgieter ever arrested a Chinese national? 'Yes,' she says, embarrassed. 'Two or three ... hundred. Especially at the drying facilities; 99 per cent are Chinese and Hong Kong passport holders.' The drying facilities to which runners such as KR deliver the contraband abalone are a key link in the smuggling chain, Potgieter says. Once abalone is dried, it has a less pungent smell and is more difficult for police dogs to pick up. It is also less bulky, meaning larger volumes can be shipped more unobtrusively. These factors might explain why, although fresh abalone is preferred by Hong Kong diners, the majority that enters the SAR from South Africa is the dried product, much of it intentionally labelled as other produce, including dried fruit and other seafoods. From these facilities, the consignments are driven clandestinely into neighbouring countries by truck or four-wheel drive. Last month, several tonnes concealed under a cargo of potatoes were confiscated by South African officials on the Mozambique border. Trailing the smugglers northwards, it becomes quickly apparent just how shambolic Mozambique's border controls are. Arriving in the country after dusk, the only immigration officer with a rubber entry stamp has gone home, an earnest official tells a sizeable group of non-Mozambican travellers: 'We did not expect foreigners this late.' The following day in Maputo, inquiries at the country's Ministry of Fisheries begin well. A senior civil servant makes assurances that minister Cadmiel Muthemba will be interested in our suspicion that abalone is being shipped between Maputo and Hong Kong. But since he is out of town, a deputy minister will probably be put forward for interview. Several days later and still no interview has materialised. In the meantime, Octavio Zefanias, who appears to represent Mozambique's Institute for Export Promotion, says the office has never heard of Haliotis midae. He reflects aloud about the integrity of any paperwork accompanying the shipments and the extent to which they are scrutinised by Hong Kong Customs and Excise. A second meeting with the fisheries ministry follows, confirming for them that the investigation does indeed concern suspected criminal activity, triad-related and with possible links to Mozambican government agencies as the source of Cites export licences. It is immediately made clear that the deputy minister will no longer be available to talk. THE DISHEARTENING THING about returning to Hong Kong is finding there is a wall of silence among officials here that is remarkably similar to that in Mozambique, a third-world country rife with corruption and still recovering from years of civil war. Requests to interview the commissioner of the Customs and Excise Department are refused. The same requests to the director of the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD), the official responsible for upholding Cites protocols, are turned down. A competition to provide the least information about Haliotis midae imports ensues, with both departments obfuscating over an application for the release of all data relating to the individuals and organisations importing abalone into Hong Kong from southern Africa. Customs cannot provide these details because, the bureau argues, Haliotis midae is not a prohibited item. It then changes its tune and decides that because it is a scheduled item under the Protection of Endangered Species of Animals and Plants Ordinance (Pesapo) implemented in March, imports of the species require a licence from AFCD (they do not) and therefore the request has nothing to do with it. For its part, AFCD will not provide the information because it 'does not maintain a register of licensed importers' - as though possession of a register is the sole way to confirm the names and addresses of the only individuals in Hong Kong truly capable of defending the legality of their dubious trade: the importers. In a written reply to a broad set of questions, AFCD went so far as to comment: 'Haliotis midae came under the control of Pesapo [on] 13 March 2009. Imports to Hong Kong before that date was [sic] not subject to licensing control and should not be considered as being illegal.' This stonewalling spurs fresh efforts, in collaboration with Traffic, the wildlife trade monitor established by WWF and the International Union for Conservation of Nature, to sift through Hong Kong's import data; to establish once and for all that abalone imports that can only constitute Cites-listed Haliotis midae, provenance of South Africa, are still entering the SAR from third-party countries such as Mozambique despite the introduction of the endangered species ordinance; and to try and put a street value on the abalone the syndicates have smuggled into Hong Kong in the last few years via these routes. Evidence collected over a period of six months suggests that since 2000, amounts of abalone far exceeding the previously extant quotas South Africa imposed on the trade, and far exceeding the 1,200-tonne capacity of the country's abalone farms, have been imported into Hong Kong, not just from Mozambique, but from countries such as Namibia, Zimbabwe, Kenya and Swaziland as well. 'Given that the distribution of Haliotis midae [the only commercially traded abalone species in southern Africa] is limited to the Cape of South Africa, you couldn't have a consignment of abalone emanating from Namibia, Zimbabwe or Mozambique unless it had found its way there illegally,' reasons Monde Mayekiso, deputy director general of the South African Environment Ministry's bureau of Marine and Coastal Management (MCM). At least Mozambique and Namibia are coastal states. The notion that Hong Kong Customs and Excise could fail to be anything but suspicious of shellfish imports from landlocked Swaziland or Zimbabwe prompts incredulity both at MCM and Traffic. 'I can confirm there's no ocean in Swaziland or Zimbabwe, and there's no abalone either,' says Markus Burgener, Traffic's senior programme officer in southern Africa. Mayekiso is less diplomatic: 'Swaziland? [Hong Kong Customs and Excise] should be alert to the distribution of animals that are notorious for being illegally traded,' he insists. 'We should scrutinise [sources] very, very carefully. Anybody who did that - even not very carefully - would perceive beige abalone coming from any country in southern Africa, other than South Africa, is illegal.' Burgener then reveals the value of the trade that AFCD refuses to believe is illegal (that coming in from third-party countries): 'An average of more than 1,500 tonnes entering Hong Kong each year since 2000, representing a cumulative street value of [at least] HK$4.25 billion.' 'We have known for some years that Asian crime syndicates are involved in the illegal exploitation of abalone,' Burgener says. 'But this is the first time we have put a value on their smuggling activities.' Driving back across Danger Point at sunrise, as children begin their walk to school, observing a nation struggling to deal with a disproportionate burden of social ills, it seems unconscionable that the Hong Kong government would not want to launch its own inquiry into the city's shellfish habit. For his part, Mayekiso pleads for Hong Kong consumers to dine responsibly: 'There are many, many young people whose lives are being destroyed by the illegal abalone trade.' Shell life Abalone was sought after by the emperors of the Zhou (1045BC to 256BC) through to the Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. Its prestige status enshrined, most chefs will tell you that today it is ordered not for its taste, but as an ostentatious show of wealth. Some of Hong Kong's leading seafood chefs, including DotCod's Colin Gouldsbury, have eschewed it from their menus over concerns about provenance and the sustainability of the catch.