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He knew there were sharks in the water, but Sivuyile Xelela needed to work. Earlier that week, his wife had moved to join him, traveling from their home village in South Africa’s province of Eastern Cape to the tiny coastal township of Eluxolweni, outside Cape Town. They’d gotten married three months earlier, and she was pregnant. It was up to 34-year-old Xelela to provide for his growing family.
An economic migrant, Xelela had left his home village eight years before to look for work, and he’d found it in an astonishingly dangerous occupation: abalone poaching. When conditions were suitable, Xelela would swim more than three kilometers offshore to harvest the large shellfish, which sell for up to US $30 per kilogram on South Africa’s black market, from the reefs off Dyer Island—a great white shark hotspot.
Eluxolweni residents say that over the past 15 years sharks have killed at least four abalone poachers from the community. Local policeman Danie Rautenbach’s 2013 testimony in a poaching trial suggests the number of shark victims is at least double that. “The shark comes at the diver, like in Jaws,” he told the court, “and takes him away.” Xelela knew the risks, but he had little choice. And on September 3, Xelela was killed by a great white shark.
Men from Eluxolweni risk their lives to collect abalone, a status food that sells in China for more than $200 per kilogram when dried. Over the past 25 years, trafficking syndicates with links to the drug trade have illegally exported more than 50,000 tonnes of South African abalone, driving the species—found nowhere else on Earth—to the brink of commercial extinction.
This illicit supply chain feeds off a social crisis: more than half of South Africa’s population lives in poverty, and income inequality in the country ranks among the highest in the world. While some abalone poachers have grown wealthy off the trade, thousands more, including most of the divers in Eluxolweni, remain mired in poverty. They earn less than five percent of the product’s final value.
The water was calm the morning Xelela died. He’d swum from shore with a large group, seeking safety in numbers. When they reached Dyer Island, they would spend several hours freediving, holding their breath for minutes at a time as they collected abalone. But first they needed to leave the safety of the kelp beds and cross a deep channel. This, they understood, was where the sharks lurked.
Under normal circumstances, Dyer Island supports one of the highest concentrations of great white sharks in the world. The nearby town of Gansbaai markets itself as a great white capital and draws more than 80,000 tourists each year. A few months earlier, the sharks had all but disappeared, vanishing after an unprecedented spate of attacks by killer whales. The missing sharks had frustrated local cage-diving companies and offered a brief respite to the poachers. But after a period of quiet, the sharks had returned.
Xelela was swimming near the front of the group when the shark struck. “It dragged him under and came up shaking him in its jaws,” says one of the divers, who asks not to be named.
The men scattered, calling for help using a cell phone they’d waterproofed using condoms. By the time the rescue boats arrived, Xelela had died, bleeding from large wounds to his legs.
A week later, more than 40 Eluxolweni residents traveled roughly 1,000 kilometers to Xelela’s home village to pay their respects, hauling his coffin in a trailer behind a minibus taxi. In a traditional Xhosa ceremony, his family slaughtered two cattle and several sheep in his honor.
“Our parents want us to stop poaching, but we support them with whatever we earn,” says a diver who attended the funeral. Xelela had been sending money home to his family, he explains. “We all do. And we take these risks because of poverty.”
After the funeral, Xelela’s wife stayed behind in Eastern Cape and moved back in with her family. One of Xelela’s relatives took her place in the taxi back to Eluxolweni, moving into her now-empty wooden shack. There is little work in the area besides cleaning homes or gardening in the neighboring holiday village. As a young man, it is likely that he will end up poaching abalone.
“Everyone does that here. There is nothing else,” says one of the divers. “All we can do is pray.”