In the first 20 years following the introduction of a quota on abalone harvesting in 1970, poaching existed but was contained. This changed dramatically in the early 1990s. Within a couple of years, the illicit perlemoen trade had become a highly organised, multimillion-dollar industry, controlled by street gangs on the shoreline and by transnational enterprises on the trade routes to East Asia. As a result of this binge of illegal harvesting, South Africa's stock of wild perlemoen today stands on the brink of extinction. This paper explores why the illicit abalone trade took off so dramatically in the 1990s and chronicles the attempts of various enforcement agencies to contain it. We evaluate which measures may have worked, which may still work, and which were doomed from the start.