The demand for abalone is so extreme that it is commonly referred to as “white gold” and is now the world’s most valuable shellfish. Much of that demand comes from Asia, especially China, where consumers can’t seem to get enough of the fleshy snails in restaurants and supermarkets.
South Africa is home to one of the most prized species of abalone, fueling widespread illegal poaching by organized crime syndicates who are eager to satisfy the seemingly Chinese diners’ seemingly insatiable appetite. “Since 2001 an estimated 75 million abalone—40,000 tons—have been plucked from South African waters, about 10 times the legal quota,” according to a National Geographic report that warned South African abalone risks being poached to extinction.
Now, there is evidence that the illegal abalone trade is also propelling the rise of other contraband sales by organized crime operations in South Africa. “Dried abalone … forms the nucleus of a criminal economy worth millions each year in South Africa‚ with documented links to money laundering and the drug trade,” said Cape Town-based investigative journalist Kimon de Greef in a recent report. Specifically, he discovered that the abalone traders are now expanding into the increasingly lucrative donkey skin trade where the hides are sold to Chinese buyers to be used for a traditional Chinese remedy known as ejiao.
Kimon joins Eric & Cobus to discuss the broader environmental and security implications of the burgeoning illegal abalone trade between South Africa and China.
- National Geographic: Poaching for Abalone, Africa’s ‘White Gold,’ Reaches Fever Pitch by Paul Steyn
- Times Live: Abalone mafia targeting SA donkeys‚ says NatGeo investigation by Dave Chambers
- The Africa-China Reporting Project: The ecological, industrial and drug war behind the abalone on your dinner table by Crystal Chow
Kimon de Greef is a freelance journalist from Cape Town, South Africa. Among other issues, he writes about environmental crime, informal trades, immigration, and conflict over natural resources. He has published features with Al Jazeera, Roads & Kingdoms, Vice, GOOD, Hakai, The Mail & Guardian, and GroundUp News. He has also worked as a criminological consultant, investigating wildlife trafficking and drug markets. He holds a Master’s in Conservation Biology from the University of Cape Town and is currently writing a book on illicit trades.
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