The long game
Hanli Prinsloo is a South African freediver and ocean advocate. She is the founder of I AM WATER, a Durban-based charity that seeks to reconnect South Africa's underserved urban youth with the ocean.
Walking the dog on the small beach just below the village where I live I stop dead in my tracks, there he is. The sun is already high in the sky as he unashamedly hauls himself onto the rocks. Tattered old wetsuit, patched and worn fins, mask and snorkel. I don’t even have to wait for the telltale scuffle of dripping bag hurriedly stuffed into backpack, baggy jeans slipped on over wetsuit and the nonchalant stroll to the nearby train station. Hidden behind my hat and sunglasses I watch as hundreds of dollars worth of protected ocean treasure gets carried away. Another day, another poacher.
Abalone poaching in South Africa is a symptom of so many social, economic and environmental challenges that your head starts pounding just contemplating the complexity. With 29% unemployment and one of the highest ratios of inequality in the world, all South Africans are not thriving. Many are struggling to survive. In his book ‘Poacher’, fellow ocean lover and journalist Kimon de Greeff follows the story of an active and successful poacher Shuhood, (not his real name). Stories of near death experiences in the icy kelp forests using out of date and downright dangerous scuba gear flows into the telling of the kind of shark encounters that will make your toes curl up and your breath quicken. Poachers get paid around USD 33 a kilogram and is sold for USD 540 a plate in China. Poverty drives desperation and desperate men enter an ocean they hardly know to harvest this white gold. Powerful cartels drive the sales and export, seeing over six million illegal abalone leave the country each year, an underground industry worth USD 60 -120 million.
I recently attended a reading and interview with Kimon at my local bookshop where he shared first hand experiences getting to know the poachers, their fears, ambitions and destructive bravery. Spellbound we listened to the anecdotes that would sound more at home in a Mexican drug smuggling drama series. ‘So where is Shuhood now?’ someone asks. Kimon had shared how he’d spent time in prison and had in the last years decided to step away from poaching, but his real name and identity is still protected for unsolved cases and conflicts. Before Kimon could reply a soft voice from the back of the room answers, ‘I’m here’. Kimon stands up to walk over and shake Shuhoods hand, ‘only if you feel safe man’, he says kindly, asking the audience not to take any photos. Shuhood nods and takes to the stage, willing to answer questions. With so many questions, accusations and also compassion burning inside me my hand shoots up – ‘You’ve spent so much time in the ocean harvesting, and now you say you’re done, what would you say is your relationship with the ocean today?’
He looks down at his shoes and quietly considers my question. Then he starts to speak of all the friends he’s lost ‘to the sea’. Drownings and arrests… but mostly drowning. ‘The sea gave me so much’ he said, ‘but it also took so much away. I think today my relationship is one of hate and also love.’ He looks me right in the eyes and says, ‘You know it’s not the easy road, poaching. Yes it’s good money but your life is on the line every night. Have you dived the offshore reefs in the dead of night?’ he asks me. I shake my head no, you’d have to be mad to do that I think. Or desperate. ‘I could’ve picked drugs you know’, he goes on. ‘But I didn’t want to do that.’ He doesn’t elaborate more. Just last month one of the children on our I AM WATER workshop had a wound in his leg from a gun shot that was fired across the school yard in a dangerous spite of drug gang violence. Maybe he has children. And so there we sit, a room full of ocean lovers ocean users ocean conservationists staring up the barrel of the harsh realities of conservation in a country of rife inequality.
‘I didn’t know pearly is an animal!’ a boy exclaims, as coach Marlin shares the presentation on the first day of our I AM WATER Ocean Guardians workshop. Jayden lives in a community less than 5km’s from the ocean and it’s not his first time on this beach. He’s never been in the water here and he doesn’t know how to swim but he knows this beach because this is where the men from his family come to dive for ‘pearly’, the local name for abalone. All along the coastline underserved coastal communities are faced with ethical and moral choices vastly overshadowed by their needs. We’ve strategically expanded our programs around the coastline to include several communities well known as poaching hotspots. The children we work with know the ocean only as a resource, not as a place of wild beauty, peace and important ecosystems. As they complete our Ocean Guardians workshop and proudly receive their certificates we ask them what their promise to the ocean will be. Young eyes opened underwater for the first time start to consider this cold wild place as something to protect, to treasure and enjoy. We’re playing a long game. We believe that education and experience instils a change in behaviour and we are investing in a future of connection and protection.
Tomorrow morning instead of a poacher crawling out onto the rocks with valuable abalone we will see the I AM WATER team putting masks on young faces and encouraging them to overcome their fear of the sea to see what lies below. A seascape full of life worth much more than weight in dollars.
This column appears in ISSUE 10: Interpreting whalesong of Oceanographic Magazine
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