One of the alleged kingpins, a Chinese national named Ran Wei, had a successful South African crayfish-exporting business before skipping the country in 2010 when associates — including a lawyer and police officers — were nabbed.
An Interpol arrest warrant is out for Wei, the principal suspect in a case being described as the biggest of its kind in South Africa’s history.
Better crime intelligence and a dollop of luck, such as finding a discarded pie receipt in a Porsche Cayenne, has helped authorities close in on previously untouchable syndicate bosses.
In the case of the pie receipt, officers were able to identify a bakery in Hermanus — a poaching hot-spot — in which video footage helped identify a top get-away driver, nicknamed “Fast and Furious” because of his ability to evade capture.
Police estimate that one syndicate will have up to 30 members, from divers to carriers and buyers. More than 100 suspects have been arrested over the past three years.
Those held face charges of racketeering, money laundering and poaching, offenses that can carry jail terms of up to 25 years. For the first time, foreign assets such as companies are also being targeted, investigators say.
“We are cutting off the head of the snake, but there are many snakes in this dirty business,” Potgieter said.
The scale of the plunder is mind-boggling.
In one case, a syndicate poached 50 tonnes in five months, storing the abalone at a disused chicken battery along South Africa’s west coast. The premises were raided after a tip-off to police who caught three suspects.
Another group slipped through 10 shipping containers of contraband before authorities intercepted two more en route to Hong Kong. The contents of one of the seized containers were estimated at US$3.5 million, police said.
Abalone is mainly fished commercially in Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Oman and South Africa, where 300 commercial license holders can take no more than 136 tonnes a year between them.
However, wildlife trade monitoring group TRAFFIC estimates the illegal harvest in 2012 was 1,542 tonnes — much more than the local population of the mollusk, which takes nearly a decade to reach maturity, can support.
Government officials say the situation is so desperate they may have to impose a blanket ban on all abalone fishing — both recreational and commercial — to stave off looming extinction.
“We have reached commercial collapse already and if we continue on this path the abalone could become extinct in the wild soon,” said Bernard Liedemann, a senior fisheries official involved in the fight against poaching since the 1990s.