JOHANNESBURG (AFP) – South African authorities jailed two Chinese nationals caught with over US$60,000 (S$82,108) worth of illegally fished abalone, a coveted delicacy smuggled mainly to Asia, police said Wednesday (Nov 24).

Poachers have been stripping South Africa’s coasts of the much sought-after sea snail, which is protected by strict fishing quotas.

Investigators have been cracking down on abalone trafficking networks, many of which are run by Chinese criminal syndicates.

Two Chinese nationals, Feng Zhu and Zhou Wang Feng, were sentenced to two years in prison this week for abalone poaching, South Africa’s elite police unit, the Hawks, said in a statement on Wednesday.

A Malawian national, Richard Rayson, was also handed a 12-month prison sentence.

The trio were caught with around US$61,000 worth of cooked, dried and wet abalone in May 2020.

Abalone poaching costs South Africa around US$60 million per year, according to a 2018 report by wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic.

The country’s coasts have lost more than 96 million abalone over the past two decades, with 9.6 million poached in 2016 alone.

The once abundant high-end delicacy, a chewy sea snail with a distinctive salty taste, is popular at feasts and wedding banquets in the Far East.

Ninety per cent of both legal and illegal exports from South Africa end up in Hong Kong.