The theme for World Environment Day (5 June 2016) is ‘Go Wild for Life’, taking a zero tolerance approach to the illegal wildlife trade. Wildlife trade is the sale or exchange of wild animals (dead or alive) or plants to be used for food, curios, medicinal ingredients, skins or even as trophies. Legal wildlife trade is regulated, however, illegal trade has grown tremendously and is now one of the major illegal money-making trades.

These wildlife crimes affect elephants and rhinos among others, but we’re not always reminded about the lesser-known wildlife like perlemoen (or abalone). Perlemoen poaching is a serious problem on the Cape coast and around South Africa — we’ve had some cases at the Cape of Good Hope and not too long ago, arrests were made in Hout Bay.

What is perlemoen?

Perlemoen (from Dutch meaning ‘mother-of-pearl’) is abalone endemic to South Africa. It’s essentially a marine snail generally found in shallow coastal waters and seems to prefer rocky surroundings. Abalone flesh is considered as desirable food and can be eaten raw or cooked. It has a high market value and therefore it’s one of the most sought-after invertebrates in the country.

Why is perlemoen being poached?

Perlemoen meat is a delicacy and aphrodisiac also known as ‘white gold’ in the Far East and it gets (illegally) transported overseas to upmarket restaurants where people pay big money for meals. The species is in demand on the black market, with prices of up to R4500 a kilo in South Africa and almost three times that in Asia. However, the  locals who dive for perlemoen probably only see around R300 a kilo — but in poverty-stricken areas on the coast, that’s a decent amount of money. Just last month abalone with an estimated street value of R950 000 was seized in Hout Bay. Numbers of perlemoen are now critically low because of over-exploitation and following the Abalone Indaba held in Cape Town in May 2016, it looks like all the efforts put in place to help stop these crimes have not worked as well as expected. Current figures show that the poaching has increased over the past seven years and that abalone poaching costs an estimated R1 billion annually.

So why is this a problem?

If the poaching continues at this rate, it won’t be long before abalone is extinct in the wild. To put the figures in to perspective, 300 commercial abalone fishing licence holders worldwide can take no more than 150 tons of the mollusc from the sea a year between them. According to TRAFFIC (a wildlife trade monitoring group), in 2012 the illegal harvest was 1700 tons — more than 10 times the amount allowed ­—and bearing in mind, an abalone takes 10 years to reach maturity.

Another issue, in terms of payment for the dirty work is that some of the divers don’t get paid in cash; instead, they exchange the perlemoen for crystal meth, and this fuels the ever-increasing drug problem in the country.

How can you help?

Report incidents of abalone poaching to a marine conservation inspector, the police or your conservation office or dial 0800-11-12-13 (toll free).

Image credit H.Zell, Wikimedia Commons