ON MAY 10th, fighters against piracy reached a milestone. A year had passed since the last hijacking, when Somali pirates took a Greek tanker carrying 135,000 tonnes of fuel oil. The¬†Smyrni¬†and her crew of 26 were released ten months later after a record ransom payment. According to the International Maritime Bureau, a body that fights shipping crime, five ships and 71 sailors are still in pirate hands‚Äîa far cry from the count of 33 vessels and 758 hostages in early 2011, when seizures were taking place at a rate of more than 200 a year.
The decline in Somali piracy (which, according to a recent World Bank report, may at its peak have cost the world up to $18 billion a year in extra shipping expenses and lost trade) is partly the result of increasingly sophisticated co-ordination by international naval task-forces. Shipping companies are also making their vessels harder to attack thanks to a range of defensive measures, such as razor wire around decks, high-pressure hoses and maintaining speeds that make boarding hazardous. Armed security guards on many of the ships transiting pirate-infested waters have helped too.
But the pirates could still make a comeback. The cost of deterring them is high. Shipping companies may lower their guard if they think the threat has passed, and patrolling naval forces could be needed elsewhere. And although Somali piracy has faded, west Africa has seen a surge in attacks on ships passing through the Gulf of Guinea.
Tom Patterson, a maritime security expert at Control Risks, a consultancy, says these pirates, who largely come from militant groups in the Niger Delta, have a different business model to their Somali counterparts. They tend to hold ships for about two to five days, removing as much of their cargo as possible (usually gas oil) and then auctioning it to the highest bidder. Hostages are taken if potentially valuable. This week five Poles and Russians, held since April 25th when pirates attacked the German-operated¬†City of Xiamen¬†container ship off Nigeria‚Äôs coast, were released, doubtless after a ransom payment.
International naval forces are unlikely to intervene. Nigeria has a decent navy of its own which claims to be upping its efforts to contain piracy. But foreign diplomats believe that some military officials turn a blind eye to thefts in return for a share of the spoils.