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Pigeons Take Rap for Stolen African Diamonds

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There was something very suspicious about the homing pigeon found last month deep behind the security gates of this remote diamond mining town.

It was wearing a set of rocks Liz Taylor would die for.

But the gems were the least of it. What’s more suspicious than a pigeon dressed up in diamonds, authorities say, is a pigeon dressed up in diamonds with nowhere to go.

“The bird was covered in grease and oil,” said Celliers Truter, a police inspector and racing pigeon enthusiast. “And the tape attaching the diamonds was wrapped beneath the wings. It was blocking the air bags that pump blood into the veins. The bird could not fly.”

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Police are still investigating the case as a botched smuggling, but Truter and other pigeon cognoscenti have reached their own conclusion: “That bird was planted,” he said.

Why a homing pigeon loaded with six carats of uncut diamonds would be intentionally rendered flightless in a state-owned diamond mine is open to question. Was it a pigeon hater’s subterfuge, as Truter suspects? Or a carefully planned decoy? Or maybe a fearless smuggler’s teasing?

No matter the motive, mining officials are abashed, particularly since the bejeweled jailbird turned up during a visit by government officials. The looming penalty for the feathered felon and its extended fowl family--a multitude of whom have been implicated in other thefts--has this desolate desert outpost in an absolute flutter.

Pigeons’ Death Urged

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“We are recommending to the board that we get rid of all pigeons,” said Thian Combrinck, head of Alexkor, the financially troubled state mine that owns everything in this tiny one-company town. “I know it is an emotional issue, but we see no other way.”

Get rid of?

“The law now is to shoot all pigeons on sight,” Mandla Msomi, the chairman of the parliamentary committee that oversees Alexkor’s operations, told his fellow lawmakers after visiting the mine. “The security of the product is paramount.”

All pigeons?

“I have two shotguns, and I will shoot back if they come to shoot my birds,” said Koos Coetzee, the portly town butcher, who owns nearly 200 homing pigeons and is president of the Alexander Bay Pigeon Club. “It is not pigeons stealing diamonds. It is people.”

And stealing they are. Although last month’s cooing courier got no farther than a dusty trench three miles short of the Alexkor front gate, other thieves--both winged and footed--have been helping themselves to the crystalline carbon at an alarming rate, authorities say.

Breeding and racing pigeons is a popular hobby here and across the Kalahari Desert, in large part because there is little else to do and because, for the unscrupulous, the enterprise can prove lucrative. During its early years, the Alexander Bay club even got a subsidy from the mine, and it still holds weekly meetings in a clubhouse owned by Alexkor.

Four unregistered birds have been intercepted transporting diamonds from Alexkor over the past several years, but conventional wisdom has it that dozens--if not hundreds--go undetected.

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Typically, police say, the homing pigeons are smuggled by employees into the mine in lunch boxes and baggy clothes, then strapped with diamonds and released into the air. The birds are trained to fly home, where the gems are collected and the birds, after some rest, redeployed.

Company officials say it is impossible to calculate with certainty, but they estimate that nearly one in three diamonds snagged from the ancient subterranean river mouth is being pocketed by dishonest employees, with or without an airborne accomplice. That rate is about 50% higher than the industry average, they say, and could hasten the nearly depleted mine’s already approaching closure.

“Some people believe it is their birthright to own the diamonds under the ground here, so it is not seen as wrong to take a few home,” said an exasperated Combrinck, who took over the mine several months ago and is battling to keep it solvent long enough to prepare the region for a diamond-less future. “There is a whole mind-set that has to be dealt with.”

Longtime Attitude

The mind-set, community leaders say, dates to the 1920s, when diamonds were discovered at the mouth of the Orange River by prospectors mining copper upstream.

The rush on Alexander Bay was so great, historians say, that the government felt compelled to nationalize the town and a huge swath of territory where the river empties into the Atlantic.

By the 1930s, the mine had been transformed into a Depression-era work program for poor white Afrikaners, who for decades to come enjoyed everything from housing to meals to vacations at the expense of the state enterprise.

But as was the case until a few years ago across South Africa, blacks and people of mixed race were kept mostly on the outside: Both the diamonds and the pampered lifestyles were systematically out of reach. And although the work force is now largely nonwhite, unemployment in the area remains so high and the mine’s future so gloomy that some residents see stealing gems as their only security.

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“People have to make a living,” said Jack Steyn, the town clerk in nearby Port Nolloth, which is encircled by the Alexkor holdings. “We are living next to the sea, and we can’t even make a living off the sea because the mine even owns the underwater mineral rights.”

Alexkor officials say that Port Nolloth, about 50 miles down the coast, has become the center of several thriving crime syndicates that specialize in steering stolen diamonds out of the country.

The customer list, the officials say, ranges from local street hustlers to international suppliers of the Central Selling Organization, the London-based marketing arm of De Beers Consolidated Mines, the South African mining giant that dominates the world diamond trade.

“They are trying to remove illegal diamonds from the market so they can control it,” Neville van Wyk, coordinator for Alexkor’s newly created tourism division and vice mayor of Port Nolloth, said of the London organization. “If you don’t buy the illegal diamonds, you let [the stolen gems] into the system. And if you do buy them, you help create the illegal trade.”

Many See No Harm

Port Nolloth Magistrate Willie Erasmus said the underground diamond market flourishes because it is a quick and easy way to get large sums of money out of the country and is seen by many residents as a harmless form of cheating the government. Others view the theft as legitimate payment for land taken 70 years ago from the original black and mixed-race inhabitants, whose representatives recently filed a formal claim for the property’s return.

Enter Steve Thorpe, a British-born mining fix-it man who last month took over as general manager of Alexkor’s mineral division.

Thorpe is overseeing a $5-million modernization of security at the mine, which involves plugging the security holes across 328 square miles of wind-swept desert.

If deterring theft at the diamond mine requires shooting trespassing pigeons, Thorpe said, so be it.

“We are trying to go about it in a civilized fashion by asking pigeon owners to remove their birds,” Thorpe said. “But the only practical matter is to shoot them if you can’t stop them or catch them.”

Authorities say there have been no shootings so far, but no one doubts the day will come when a bird is plucked from the sky, if for no other reason than that the mine lies beneath a favorite flight path for the pigeon races.

Last year, about 70 people, including an Alexkor security officer, were arrested in a sting that snagged thieves here and across the Orange River in Namibia by using homing pigeons supplied by Truter, the police inspector who also belongs to the pigeon club.

The company issued an order then that all pigeons be removed from Alexander Bay, but the pigeon club’s dozen or so members refused to comply, insisting that their birds are for sport only.

This time, with new management in place and the government looking for a private contractor to get the most out of the mine’s waning years, everyone expects that the company’s board of directors will approve another pigeon ban this week and that company officials will strictly enforce it.

But security experts acknowledge that the crackdown will be mostly for show, because homing pigeons can travel hundreds of miles and could easily be dispatched from the mine to home bases far from Alexander Bay.

“The pigeons have become a scapegoat for the mine’s serious security problems,” said a security expert from De Beers, which owns several neighboring mines and has been advising the Alexkor management. “The pigeons are just one part of the problem. Theft is coming through the security gate, across the fences and every other imaginable way.”

Thorpe agrees that the real culprits are humans but said the crux of his security routine is psychological.

The high-profile ban on pigeons is being coupled with other visible deterrents, such as the installation of security cameras--both real ones and dummies--at strategic points throughout the mine.

The campaign has already registered some success. By his third week on the job, Thorpe said, the mine was producing 150% of its goal, about double the previous rate.

Mine Depletion Seen

No one knows how much of the improvement can be attributed to less theft, but if the gain continues, it will give company officials some breathing space to develop farming, tourism and fishing industries that they hope will replace mining jobs when the diamonds run dry. Without further prospecting, geologists project, the mine will be depleted in about three years.

As for the pigeons, Coetzee, the club president, is being wooed by residents of Port Nolloth to move his organization to their town. Unlike Alexander Bay, the town is not run by Alexkor, and officials say they would welcome the birds.

“I have loved pigeons since I was a boy,” said Coetzee. “It just tears me apart to think of them killing these birds. It is not the pigeons’ fault that people are abusing them this way.”


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