8 questions to Kimon de Greef, author of Poacher

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Poacher: Confessions from the abalone underworld by Kimon de Greef and Shuhood Abader published by Kwela Books.
Poacher: Confessions from the abalone underworld by Kimon de Greef and Shuhood Abader published by Kwela Books.

Poacher: Confessions from the abalone underworld is an unprecedented inside view of South Africa's illicit abalone trade, a lawless underwater treasure hunt for a marine snail prized as a delicacy in China. Co-author Kimon de Greef answers our questions.

You went from conservation biologist to journalist and author. Tell us about your journey.

Long before studying biology, I loved reading and the power of words, but this was mostly confined to fiction. It was through my research into poaching for my Master's degree that I realised how powerful journalism could be for telling stories and inviting people to think differently about important issues. Without people there is no need for conservation, and we need to understand people and the forces that act upon them – history, politics, economics, and so on – if there's any hope of making conservation work.

Why are you interested in abalone poaching, and why should ordinary South Africans be?

Abalone poaching offers a window into some of South Africa's deepest challenges: joblessness, severe inequality and the spread of criminal industries. Through the illegal abalone trade it is possible to read a social history of South Africa and the millions of people at our society's margins. Then there's the sheer, incongruous drama of it: divers working with torches at night in frigid waters, fearful of sharks; boat chases at high speed, shootouts on the water, all for a sack of snail meat prized as a delicacy halfway around the world. 

You did very well to bring out the human being behind the poacher. Did you, as a conservationist, manage to be non-judgemental in your dealings with Shuhood, the former poacher who co-wrote the book with you?

This book is a work of journalism, and my most basic role as a journalist is to find out what is going on. Shuhood's willingness to be forthright about his choices was a gift: it helps us understand more fully how our society produces poachers. But as a journalist I had another job, which was portraying this man as honestly as possible. Like everyone else, he has good sides and bad sides. I hope I struck some kind of balance.

Do you fear any repercussions from this book for him and for you from the dark underworld of local and international gangs involved in the smuggling?

It isn't possible to know for certain where the line of safety lies, but I would never have worked on something that felt overtly dangerous for either of us. This is not an expose of the abalone trade, but rather an attempt to document its human stories. The contextual material on how the abalone underworld operates is already on public record, and Shuhood and I have both been working in this world (in very different ways) for long enough to have some idea how far to push that.

The book seems to be cathartic for Shuhood. What do you think he got out of it?

When we met, his plan was to write a book and retire on the royalties, but unfortunately nobody makes money writing nonfiction in South Africa, except maybe Jacques Pauw. I can't speak for him, but I think he's proud to have published his life story, which he began working on in prison over a decade ago. And I know he's proud to have contributed to broader conversations about poaching and illegality, and what lies beneath them.

What is it going to take to stop the plundering of abalone in particular, and our marine resources in general?

We need a far more inclusive society and economy, one that redistributes wealth and opportunity to the millions of people still living with the painful and unjust inheritance of colonialism, apartheid and the shortcomings of politicians since 1994. We need a society where people feel invested in the rule of law, not alienated by it. And we need more effective law enforcement that shuts down supply lines instead of criminalising the working poor.

Where to from here for you? Are you going to continue straddling the world of journalism and conservation, or do you feel you have to choose at some stage?

I have been working as a freelance journalist for the last five years and will continue doing so as long as I can.

What are your hopes for Shuhood's future?

That he keeps writing (he recently completed a writing course), that he and his beautiful family find some stability in their precarious world, and that he finds less fraught ways of supporting them.

Read an extract for Poacher: Confessions from the abalone underworld

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