The Perilous Hunt for Coconut Crabs on a Distant Polynesian Island

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We meet Adams Maihota outdoors his home at nighttime. A crab hunter, he wears white plastic sandals, board shorts, a tank prime and a cummerbund to carry lengths of twine. He picks a sprig of untamed mint and tucks it behind his ear for good luck.

The photographer Eric Guth and I observe Mr. Maihota’s blazing headlamp into the forest looking for coconut crabs, identified regionally as kaveu. They’re the biggest land invertebrate on the planet, and, boiled or stir-fried with coconut milk, they’re scrumptious. For the reason that cessation of phosphate mining right here in 1966, they’ve change into one among Makatea’s largest exports.

It’s ankle-breaking terrain. We negotiate the roots of pandanus bushes and unending feo, a Polynesian time period for the previous reef rocks that stick up in all places. Vegetation slaps our faces and legs, and our pores and skin turns into slick with sweat.

The traps, which Mr. Maihota laid earlier that week, include notched coconuts tied to bushes with fibers from their very own husks. After we attain one, we flip off our lights to strategy quietly. Then, Mr. Maihota pounces.

A second later, he stands up with a sky-blue crab pedaling its ten legs in broad circles. Even with its fleshy stomach curled beneath the remainder of its physique, the animal is for much longer than the hunter’s hand.

Makatea, a part of the Tuamotu Archipelago in French Polynesia, sits within the South Pacific about 150 miles northeast of Tahiti. It’s a small uplifted coral atoll, barely 4 and a half miles throughout at its widest level, with steep limestone cliffs that rise as excessive as 250 ft straight out of the ocean.

From 1908 till 1966, Makatea was dwelling to the biggest industrial mission in French Polynesia: Eleven million tons of phosphate-rich sand have been dug out and exported for agriculture, prescribed drugs and munitions. When the mining ceased, the inhabitants fell from round 3,000 to lower than 100. At this time, there are about 80 full-time residents. Most of them reside within the central a part of the island, near the ruins of the previous mining city, which is now rotting into the jungle.

One-third of Makatea consists of a maze of greater than one million deep, round holes, often called the extraction zone — a legacy of the mining operations. Crossing into that space, particularly at evening, when coconut crabs are lively, could be lethal. Lots of the holes are over 100 ft deep, and the rock ledges between them are slim. Nonetheless, some hunters do it anyway, intent on reaching the wealthy crab habitat on the opposite aspect.

One night earlier than sundown, a hunter named Teiki Ah-scha meets us in a notoriously harmful space referred to as Le Bureau, so named for the mining buildings that was once there. Carrying flip-flops, Mr. Ah-scha trots across the holes and balances on their edges. When he goes searching throughout the extraction zone, he comes dwelling in the dead of night with a sack filled with crabs on his again.

Mr. Maihota, too, used to hunt this fashion — and he tells me that he misses it. However ever since his spouse fell right into a shallow gap just a few months earlier than our go to in 2019, she has forbidden him to cross the extraction zone. As a substitute, he units traps across the village.

Coconut crabs inhabit a broad vary, from the Seychelles within the Indian Ocean to the Pitcairn Islands within the southern Pacific Ocean. They have been a part of native diets lengthy earlier than the mining period. The biggest specimens, “les monstres,” could be the size of your arm and reside for a century.

There hasn’t been a inhabitants research on Makatea, so the crab’s conservation standing is unclear — although at evening, rattling throughout the rocks, they appear to be in all places.

After we catch crabs that aren’t authorized — both females or these lower than six centimeters throughout the carapace — Mr. Maihota lets them go.

If the islanders aren’t cautious, he says, the crabs may not be round for future generations. In lots of locations throughout the Indo-Pacific, the animals have been hunted to the purpose of extirpation, or native extinction.

Makatea is at a crossroads. Half a century after the primary mining period, there’s a pending proposal for extra phosphate extraction. Although the island’s mayor and different supporters cite the financial advantages of labor and income, opponents say that new industrial exercise would destroy the island, together with its fledgling tourism business.

“We can not make her undergo once more,” one lady tells me, invoking the island as a residing being.

Nonetheless, it’s arduous to make a residing right here. “There is no such thing as a work,” Mr. Maihota says, as we stand beneath the celebs and drip sweat onto the forest ground. He doesn’t need to discuss concerning the mine. The earlier month, he shipped out 70 coconut crabs for $10 every to his patrons in Tahiti.

In fashionable searching spots, hunters say the crabs are smaller or fewer, however hunters depend on the revenue and no person has the complete image of how the inhabitants is doing total.

We go to Mr. Maihota’s backyard the subsequent morning the place the crabs are sequestered in particular person packing containers to maintain them from attacking one another. He’ll feed them coconut and water to purge their methods, since, within the wild, they eat all method of meals, together with carrion.

By daylight, their shells are rainbows of purple, white, orange, together with many shades of blue. For now no less than — with out mining, and whereas harvests are nonetheless sustainable — they appear completely tailored to Makatea, holes and all.

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