By Eleanor Momberg
Perlemoen, known elsewhere as abalone, has been listed as an endangered species under international trade controls as part of the South African government's efforts to stem the illegal trade in the threatened species.
The move, welcomed by conservationists, comes amid a spate of multi-million rand perlemoen busts by police.
While South African companies legally export perlemoen to mainly Eastern markets, more than a million of the shellfish were confiscated from smugglers last year - a massive increase from 21 000 in 1994.
Poaching of perlemoen has resulted in the total allowable catch in legal commercial fisheries being reduced from 430 tons in the 2002/03 season to 125 tons for the 2006/07 season.
Since last month, two people have been arrested in Northern Cape, 10 in Gauteng, 12 in Mpumalanga and four in the Western Cape for illegal possession of, and dealing in, perlemoen.
In Gauteng, six Chinese nationals and six Mozambicans were arrested for being in possession of perlemoen worth R11-million.
The Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism said the listing, in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), comes into effect on May 3.
All future export consignments of perlemoen will now have to be accompanied by Cites documentation.
Dr Rob Little, acting chief executive officer of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), South Africa, said: "Apart from enhancing the sustainability of the stocks, it is critical that the millions of rands lost to the illegal poaching of abalone is turned into valued foreign revenue."
Markus Bürgener of Traffic, the wildlife trade monitoring network of the WWF and the International Conservation Union, said the listing could reduce illegal harvest and trade in the valuable and sought-after marine mollusc.
"However, the listing alone is unlikely to secure results and much will depend on the support provided to customs and Cites officials in all countries through which the product is traded."
According to Traffic, poached perlemoen is frequently smuggled into Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Swaziland, from where it is exported. Poached perlemoen was also traded through Namibia, which, like South Africa, also has a legal trade.
Bürgener said despite commendable efforts by the South African government to address the poaching, including the establishment of an environmental court specifically to deal with perlemoen-related criminal cases, the international nature of the trade meant the help of other countries was also needed. This would be most effectively achieved with the Cites listing.