26 January 2005

New punch in fight to save ravaged perlemoen

The law-enforcement officials standing on the sand at Pearly Beach laugh as they watch two kelp-draped heads bobbing about 100m offshore.

The reason for their mirth is because the heads belong to two rather obvious perlemoen poachers who have actually pulled the fronds over their heads in a futile camouflage attempt.

But escaping detection is impossible when at least three pairs of binoculars and one telescope are trained on them.

After watching the pair for a few minutes, and scanning other kelp beds nearby for their co-poachers, the law enforcement officials decide to flush them out and send in a team of three no-nonsense SA Navy divers.

On this particular occasion the divers are backed on the beach by their team leader, who carries an R5 rifle just in case of trouble, a couple of fisheries inspectors, a handful of uniformed policemen, and several Marines.

Marine is an acronym for "management action for resources of inshore and nearshore environments", and this squad is a new anti-poaching task force of 46 which starts work officially next week.

In the water the tough, well-trained divers are more than a match for the poachers - although one of the navy men carries a baton tucked down the back of his wetsuit for "insurance" - and they quickly persuade the pair to swim to shore where they emerge spluttering, coughing and shivering.

But, like virtually all the poachers confronted in this way, the pair have emptied their diving pouches in the sea before the navy divers arrive.

So the law enforcement officials confiscate only the empty pouches, the tools used to lever perlemoen from the rocks and - from those who have them - powerful headlamps which enable the poachers to dive after dark.

One of the Marines picks up one of the empty pouches and sniffs it.

"Here, you can actually smell the perlemoen," he says. "We could send it away for a DNA test on the slime residue that would prove there were perlemoen in here, but the tests cost R4 000 each and it's not worth it."

After warning the poachers that they're playing with fire and will end up in jail, they send them on their way up the dunes - until the next time.

Although the law enforcers are only human and need to laugh occasionally, the task at hand is no laughing matter.

And given the level of the poaching and the absolute decimation of the perlemoen resource along this coastline, it's much closer to tragedy than to comedy.

The poachers have told the law enforcers there's another group further down, so the small convoy of three 4x4 vehicles races along the beach and within minutes have spotted another five poachers in the water.

But these poachers have also seen the vehicles and are bobbing quietly out among the kelp.

"They're just lying there - they'll wait until it's dark and then they'll come out," remarks one of the law enforcers.

So the navy divers set off into the water again to get them out.

Because it's difficult for the divers to spot the poachers among the kelp, their team leader fires a couple of red flares from the beach to direct them.

Again, these poachers are persuaded to return to the shore, where they in turn tell of another group still further down the beach.

Soon afterwards, the law enforcement team is called to a "safe" house in Pearly Beach which is used as an observation post.

"There are eight right in front of the house ... you see that rock just on the beach? Follow that line out and just to the left," says the animated owner of the house.

"Then there was a group of 12, there are nine there (he gestures in another direction towards the sea) and three have left the water already.

"I also saw five at Antoniesklip - there must have been 25 or more altogether."

After watching carefully through his telescope for a couple of minutes, the navy dive team leader rushes down to the beach with his men to tackle first the nine poachers who are in two groups.

"I'll start with this lot (of seven)," one of the divers remarks matter-of-factly.

His colleague adds resignedly: "Those other two are to hell and gone out there - they're moerse far off."

Again the team leader uses flares to guide the men; again the poachers are fairly quickly brought to shore; again they have nothing in their bags.

In just two hours, at least half-a-dozen different groups of poachers totalling more than 30 are chased from the water along just a few kilometres of coastline.

Some of them play dumb when questioned, pretending not to understand.

Others seem happy enough to point out where their fellow-poachers are operating - probably because they know they're unlikely to get caught with any perlemoen in their possession.

On one occasion there's a bit of pushing and pulling, but none of the poachers offers any real physical resistance - at least not on the beach, where they are clearly outnumbered, although some of the navy divers have apparently been threatened with perlemoen levers in the water.

It's nearly 8pm and the navy divers are still at work, flushing out poachers.

Three poachers emerge to say there's a fourth further down the beach, so the team moves down and, silhouetted against a brilliant sunset and a rapidly darkening sky, stand on the rocks and scan the sea for the remaining poacher.

Later, Marines manager Johann Erasmus reveals that others of his men have reported that three 4x4s, all known poaching vehicles from the Hawston area, have arrived at Pearly Beach, carrying about 35 people.

"They've just parked there, and they're waiting for us to leave," he explains, and asks rhetorically: "Poaching has created a false economy in this region - what's going to happen when this resource (perlemoen) has been completely stripped?"

But he's clearly pleased at the prospect of their new
R5-million-a-year budget allocation and additional resources which include assistance from the first of the government's new environmental protection vessels, the Lilian Ngoyi.

And they've enjoyed particular success during the past week.

In the Kleinmond marine reserve they've made three arrests and seized 416 perlemoen: "That's one of the biggest cases in the past four years in that area," says Erasmus.

And they also made one arrest, seized more than 3 800 perlemoen and confiscated a Toyota Corolla on the road between Pearly Beach and Buffelsjags.

"The perlemoen from Kleinmond were still quite big, but here they've taken out so much that it's all this size now," he says, holding his thumb and forefinger together to indicate the tiny size.

"Oom Johnny" Robertson, a fishery control officer from the Department of Environmental Affairs and Forestry, remarks: "It's like this every day. I've been with 'Sea Fisheries' for 30 years and for the past 10 it's been going on like this."

He tells of one occasion at Quoin Point where there were an estimated 500 poachers at work, about half of them divers in the water.

"We were about nine or 10 guys - what could we do against that lot? Nothing."

That particular story may have become slightly exaggerated in the telling, but the essence of it is absolutely true. huge numbers of poachers are continuously targeting this entire coastline wherever perlemoen occur, swarming into the water at every opportunity and brazenly defying the law.

Those taking part in the new initiative, Operation Trident, are extremely pleased by the many new resources put at their command and there's a palpable air of new confidence and commitment about them.

They believe - possibly for the first time in a decade - that they can now win their battle against the poachers.

But the enemy is relentless, remorseless and, seemingly, equipped with an unlimited supply of foot-soldiers.

At the moment, it's still a very real question as to whether there will be any spoils left when the perlemoen war is finally over.


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