PRETORIA — Praised as the best wildlife law-enforcement agency in all of Africa, South Africa’s Endangered Species Protection Unit combines perilous undercover investigation and hardline law enforcement with a passion for one of Africa’s most precious resources — its wildlife.

Despite a successful decade-long crackdown on the illegal wildlife trade, though, the ESPU faces a future as uncertain as that of the threatened species it works to defend.

“I don’t see this unit as having a future within the police force. We don’t get the resources, we can’t go out and recruit, and our vehicles don’t get replaced,” said ESPU Chief Superintendent Pieter Lategan, who founded the special unit 10 years ago.

“The biggest problem is that wildlife crime is not a priority. We’re struggling to keep this place open,” added Capt. Francis Weyers, part of the ESPU since 1992.

Since the end of apartheid in 1994, South Africa’s new government has slashed funding for environment-related programs in favor of a socioeconomic agenda aiming to educate and employ the country’s many impoverished citizens, according to conservationists.

“I think this is mainly because of a lack of understanding at the government level about the important role [environmental conservation] plays in tourism,” remarked David Newton, national director of TRAFFIC, an international nongovernmental organization that tracks trade in endangered species.

Tourism remains one of South Africa’s largest industries, and is widely seen as a key to the country’s future.

With South Africa’s intense urban crime keeping most police forces busy, the ESPU stands between international syndicates and a potentially lucrative illegal trade in this country’s diverse animal and plant species.

“The profit margins on wildlife trade are as high as with drugs, and the penalties are far less severe,” said Weyers. “But it’s getting better. Recently some guys got 29 years for rhino poaching.”

The ESPU works with all endangered species: birds, reptiles, mammals and plants, plus radioactive and toxic waste. To stop the trade at the source within South Africa, agents go undercover for up to six months to establish a relationship with the syndicates, Weyers said, adding that trying to reintegrate into normal life takes a psychological toll.

“Fifty percent of the guys we’re doing transactions with have guns. We do the (undercover) purchases unarmed, but backup is very good, and armed. On the poaching scene you have to be very careful. They’re armed and will shoot you,” he said, noting that the poacher’s weapon of choice is an AK-47.

The ESPU has had no loss of life to date.

While the ESPU is held up as a model for wildlife enforcement in other African countries, a six-month surveillance and report on 11 sub-Saharan countries by ESPU officers revealed that international treaties on wildlife conservation have little effect on the ground.

“Wildlife law enforcement is virtually nonexistent in other African countries,” said Lategan. “They have no budget, no infrastructure or are in civil war.”

The ESPU’s report called for resources to enforce international antipoaching agreements like the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

“We’re hugely understaffed,” Lategan said. “I could keep 100 people busy, but we’ve lost people. There used to be 45 of us; now there are 30.”

Falling outside of the police mainstream, ESPU members have no chance at salary increase or promotion, and so some leave for other police departments or the private sector.

Most ESPU resources come from a trust set up by South African businesspeople, but it falls far short of the unit’s needs, he explains. “If the ESPU Trust got more money or funds from overseas, it would all change. If we had $1 million, we could survive indefinitely just on the interest.

“As it is now, if my guys go out on an investigation, I can only give them 128 rand ($20) per day. There’s no way they can stay in a hotel, so they stay in tents and use the money for food.”

Launched under heavy pressure from conservation-oriented nongovernmental organizations to battle illegal smuggling of rhino horns and elephant ivory, the ESPU has successfully abated this trade. However, its work has also revealed the enormous scope of the illegal trade problem.

“We don’t know what percentage of illegal trade we’re squashing,” Lategan said. “What I’m really worried about are species being smuggled out that we haven’t even looked at yet, like beetles, marine life, succulent plants. There are still serious problems with this.” He notes that public and government support are capricious.

The biggest challenge for the ESPU now is poaching of abalone, Haliotis midae. Every month, Chinese triads and other syndicates ship tons of abalone to East Asia (including Japan) from South Africa’s southwest coast, according to Weyers. The consequent serious decline in abalone populations bodes ill for the coastal marine environment, and the future of local fishing communities.

“We’re concerned, but we have no idea how much abalone is imported into Japan, China or Hong Kong. This year we’re looking into it, to see if a proper investigation is needed,” said TRAFFIC Japan representative Hisako Kiyono in Tokyo.

International syndicates harvest abalone together with impoverished local fishermen, whose traditional livelihood has been handed over to commercial fishing operations in the form of government quotas.

“We need to talk to locals about the benefits of wildlife. They don’t see the benefit of keeping it,” Lategan said, explaining that many local people throughout South Africa, with annual salaries as low as $160 per year, simply want the leisurely lifestyle of tourists they see in South Africa.

With rhino horn valued at $1,300 per kilogram in South Africa, poaching is a formidable temptation.

“A hunter from the U.S. or Europe gets a permit, pays 40,000 rand ($6,500) to shoot a rhino, goes and does it, no problem. He’s a hero. A local sees this, kills a rhino, and all hell breaks loose, he’s hunted with choppers and shot at. There’s so many different perspectives,” Lategan sighed.

“I’ve been writing letters to police headquarters for the last three years about the abalone trade, but they’re still not interested. They ask, ‘Why are you interested in abalone? Let the Fisheries Department do it. Why are you interested in ivory? Let Nature Conservation do it.’

“But 10 years ago I was against the ESPU also. I didn’t know what was going on.”