HOUT BAY, South Africa (Reuters) - In broad daylight, groups of poachers hidden among the rocks of a South African marine conservation area wade slowly into the icy, shark-infested waters of the Atlantic Ocean in search of 'white gold'.
Foot soldiers of a global criminal network stretching from the southernmost tip of Africa to the other side of the globe, they are scouring the rocks for abalone to meet insatiable demand from Asia for the gourmet mollusc.
The hunt is driving the species to the edge of extinction, but fears of being caught - either by coastguards or great white sharks - are relegated to the back of poachers' minds by the glittering prizes on offer.
"We didn't get much now but we will go out again tonight with the boat," said veteran poacher Stephan, emerging warily from the water as fisheries' inspectors in speed boats could be seen whizzing about looking for boats further out to sea.
Destined for trendy restaurants in Hong Kong and China, abalone - dubbed "white gold" after its pearly flesh - can fetch up to 4,500 rand (254 pounds) a kg on the South African black market, and nearly three times that in Asia, experts say.
Also found in abundance in cold waters off New Zealand, Australia, Japan and the west coast of the United States, abalone from South Africa is considered to be among the best.
The divers may only get 300 rand per kg but in impoverished coastal villages such as Hout Bay, blighted by sky-high unemployment, that is still good money.
Caught on both sides of South Africa's coastline, abalone, or "perlemoen" as it is called locally, is sold for cash or exchanged for methamphetamines, helping fuel South Africa's already serious drug problem.
"Tonight we expect a good haul of between 50 and 60 kg, maybe 100 if we're lucky," Stephan said, shivering after two hours underwater in a battered wetsuit. Like others interviewed for this story, he asked to be identified only by his first name.
Moving from their iron and wood shacks on the steep slopes of Hout Bay's Hangberg, 20 km (13 miles) east of Cape Town, the poachers trek over a snake-infested ridge, carrying heavy scuba-diving gear before reaching their destination at Seal Island.
With mobile phones sealed in condoms to keep out the water, they scan the ocean for patrol vessels and sharks before sliding into the deep.
Only a limited number of fisheries are licensed to harvest a highly circumscribed amount of abalone in South Africa, and the penalties for breaking the law are harsh.
Under no illusion about the dangers of jail or how depleted stocks could hurt fishing villages, another poacher, Leon, echoes the line from almost all the fishermen: it is simply a question of survival.
"We are just ordinary fishermen struggling to survive, to put food in the pot, to pay school fees, to make a living," he said, sitting among piles of empty abalone shells strewn across the beach.
"FAST AND FURIOUS"
On land the silky abalone are "shucked" from their shells before being dried in sheds or suburban garages. They can also be frozen prior to being smuggled out of the country in shipping containers.
Customs officers have intercepted consignments concealed as duvet covers, plastic pellets or sardines. Some shipments are organised by notorious Chinese 'Triad' gangsters.
"Triads do play a role, but in our experience it is mainly wealthy Asian businessmen who hide illegal activities behind legitimate businesses," said Lise Potgieter, a member of the South African police's elite Hawks detective unit.
One of the alleged kingpins, a Chinese national named Ran Wei, had a successful South African crayfish-exporting business before skipping the country in 2010 when associates - including a lawyer and police officers - were nabbed.
An Interpol arrest warrant is out for Wei, the principal suspect in a case being described as the biggest of its kind in South Africa's history.
Better crime intelligence and a dollop of luck, such as finding a discarded pie receipt in a Porsche Cayenne, has helped authorities close in on previously untouchable syndicate bosses.
In the case of the pie receipt, officers were able to identify a bakery in Hermanus - a poaching hot-spot - whose video footage helped identify a top get-away driver, nicknamed "Fast and Furious" because of his ability to evade capture.
Police estimate that one syndicate will have up to 30 members, from divers to carriers and buyers. More than 100 suspects have been arrested over the past three years.
Those held face charges of racketeering, money laundering and poaching, offences that carry jail terms of up to 25 years. For the first time, foreign assets such as companies are also being targeted, investigators say.
"We are cutting off the head of the snake, but there are many snakes in this dirty business," Potgieter told Reuters.
The scale of the plunder is mind-boggling.
In one case, a syndicate poached 55 tons in five months, storing the abalone at a disused chicken battery along South Africa's west coast. The premises were raided after a tip-off to police who caught three suspects.
Another group slipped through 10 shipping containers of contraband before authorities intercepted two more en route to Hong Kong. The contents of one of the seized containers were estimated at $3.5 million (2.1 million pounds), police said.
Abalone is mainly fished commercially in Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Oman and South Africa, where 300 commercial licence holders can take no more than 150 tons a year between them.
However, wildlife trade monitoring group TRAFFIC estimates the illegal 2012 harvest at 1,700 tons - way more than the local population of the mollusc, which takes nearly a decade to reach maturity, can support.
Government officials say the situation is so desperate they may have to impose a blanket ban on all abalone fishing - both recreational and commercial - to stave off looming extinction.
"We have reached commercial collapse already and if we continue on this path the abalone could become extinct in the wild soon," said Bernard Liedemann, a senior fisheries official involved in the fight against poaching since the 1990s.
(Editing by Ed Cropley and Sonya Hepinstall)