Poacher: Confessions from the Abalone Underworld
by Kimon de Greef and Shuhood Abader
Abalone, a large marine snail and a mainstay of Cantonese cuisine and high-end Chinese banquets, is found on the coastlines of every continent except Antarctica. Yet, in recent years, South Africa has become the largest supplier of the dried abalone sold and eaten in Hong Kong.
Between 2012 and 2015, a third of Hong Kong’s dried abalone imports came directly from the country, according to Poacher: Confessions from the Abalone Underworld, a book offering an insider’s view of the illegal abalone trade at one of its key sources. Another third was “laundered” through African countries that have no wild abalone – Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Zambia. “This means that nearly 65 per cent of all the dried abalone entering Hong Kong was South African in origin,” the authors write, adding that almost two-thirds of this came via the black market.
While this may be little more than an intriguing statistic for many in Hong Kong, to those concerned about overfishing – or even just keeping abalone on restaurant menus – it is part of a worrying trend of poaching involving criminal gangs.
Last month, wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic issued a report that found South Africa’s coasts have been illegally stripped of at least 96 million abalone over the past 18 years, with 9.6 million poached in 2016 alone. Hong Kong imports about 90 per cent of all dried South African abalone, the report added.
By following the lives of those at the bottom of the food chain, Poacher reveals the desperation but also the excitement that draws many poor Africans to this trade, as well as the dangers involved. It is filled with captivating scenes as poachers seek out new abalone populations to satisfy the demands of Chinese buyers, at times, perhaps, relying too heavily on these anecdotes as it struggles to find a balance between memoir and exposé.
Abalone poaching came to South Africa in the early 1990s. Shuhood Abader (not his real name), a poacher for more than 15 years, witnessed the growth of the illegal trade, and his recollections form the spine of Poacher. Abader began writing his account while in prison, after one of many run-ins with the law. Co-author Kimon de Greef, meanwhile, is a journalist working for publications including National Geographic and The New York Times.
Abader first dived for abalone in the early 90s. Holding his breath, he would descend into the water along with a more experienced diver, quickly filling his bag with up to 100kg of abalone. Such hauls were common in those days. Poachers are now lucky to net 30kg a dive and increasingly risk arrest. Abader soon began using scuba equipment, allowing him to reach areas richer in abalone and pick them clean of larger specimens.
The book vividly recounts the mostly nighttime dives: the tension, being ferried out on overcrowded rubber boats in the dark, levering off the abalone shells with metal tools in the deep, and then hiding the bags, for them to be picked up later, in case law-enforcement officers are waiting at the water’s edge. There are many stories of arrests and chaotic attempts to flee.
Much of the illegal harvesting in South Africa is performed by impoverished men with little training. Dozens have died, many more have spent time behind bars. Yet, with the price of abalone rising, more and more are flocking to the illegal industry. Between 1990 and 2007, the export price of legal abalone rose from less than 30 South African rand a kilogram to more than 380 rand. By early 2018 overall prices had exceeded 500 rand (US$35), although poachers receive only a fraction of this.
The money has attracted organised crime. “What began as a small, informal trade network would expand violently within two decades into an integrated criminal operation,” the authors write. Local gang bosses controlling the abalone trade would swap shipments of abalone for drugs, first Quaaludes and later methamphetamines, “embedding the abalone trade more deeply in the criminal underworld”.
In fact, the two have become so strongly linked that some South Africans believe methamphetamine is produced from abalone shells. And that is not such a far-fetched conclusion as it may seem: abalone-drying premises closely resemble illegal drug labs, hidden away in nondescript buildings, fitted with gas cylinders and supplied in bulk with industrial chemicals. “Both sorts of facilities, too, occasionally blow up,” the authors write.
While abalone has become an underworld commodity, the authors point out that the industry has also lifted thousands of Africans out of poverty, “if only fleetingly”. Many rely on the illegal trade to support their families, though younger, unencumbered poachers often embrace the trappings of wealth, earning more in a single night than their schoolteachers can in a month.
“Poaching spread like wildfire,” one former buyer tells the authors. “The sea was the bank […] You could just go to the bank and get more.” Coastal waters quickly emptied, however. The marine molluscs reach reproductive maturity at seven years and take more than 20 years to grow to full size. Mass poaching left fewer abalone to repopulate.
This has been devastating for the species. It has also left poachers taking ever greater risks. The book highlights one relatively untouched area, around an island that’s home to one of the world’s highest concentrations of great white sharks. Divers without boats swim for three hours to reach the location, then remain for another three hours diving on lungfuls of air, before dragging back a haul that will earn them the equivalent of about HK$420. Seven or eight poachers had been killed off the island since 1998, a police captain testified in 2013, adding that he’d seen situations where sharks came at the divers “like in Jaws”.
Money from the abalone black market has seeped into every anti-poaching agency, according to the authors: the police, South African Revenue Service, fisheries, national parks. In addition, hundreds of tonnes of abalone, an estimated 20 per cent of the illegal catch, is confiscated each year, sold at auction by the fisheries department and exported to Hong Kong. “You harvest it for them and they make the money,” Abader says at one point.
De Greef doesn’t just rely on Abader’s recollections. He interviews experts in the field, as well as others engaged in the illegal trade. An elderly white poacher, who had been involved from the beginning, talks about how he initially concentrated on crayfish, before meeting a local Chinese businessman, known as Squinty, who was connected to a buyer in Hong Kong.
De Greef’s research brought him to Hong Kong, to visit the shops and restaurants where South African-sourced abalone is sold as a high-end product. “On its journey eastwards, poached abalone from South Africa flips into a legal product, shifting from a crime story to a food story,” he writes.
The book’s move to the global story comes too late, though, and highlights the imbalance of Poacher, which relies too heavily on the personal recollections of a single poacher while failing to adequately illuminate the bigger picture, such as how the purloined abalone is transferred from South Africa to legitimate Hong Kong businesses. Also absent are the voices of the Chinese buyers and those involved higher up the criminal food chain.
Poacher paints a bleak picture. According to the authors, abalone “once smothered inshore reefs for hundreds of kilometres”. Now, only traces of this abundance remain – small patches and individuals that have escaped detection or live in hard-to-reach places – with many areas having been picked clean to feed the appetites of consumers halfway around the world.
The demise of wild abalone has created a market for the farmed product, which in turn has become a target for theft. The book recounts how, in January 2014, a truck filled with farmed abalone was attacked by gunmen while approaching Cape Town airport. In April 2017, a guard was shot in the stomach during an attempted hijacking and two robbers and a guard were injured in a shoot-out a few months later.
At times it is clear that Poacher is targeted at a domestic audience, one familiar with the geography and slang of South Africa. This is a pity, because the subject has far-reaching appeal, in particular in Hong Kong and mainland China. It is, however, a minor annoyance in an engaging book.
It might just change people’s dining habits, too.