The Perilous Hunt for Coconut Crabs on a Distant Polynesian Island

We meet Adams Maihota exterior his home in the dark. 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 comply with Mr. Maihota’s blazing headlamp into the forest seeking coconut crabs, identified domestically as kaveu. They’re the biggest land invertebrate on this planet, and, boiled or stir-fried with coconut milk, they’re scrumptious. Because the cessation of phosphate mining right here in 1966, they’ve turn out to be one among Makatea’s largest exports.

It’s ankle-breaking terrain. We negotiate the roots of pandanus timber and unending feo, a Polynesian time period for the previous reef rocks that stick up in every single place. 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, encompass notched coconuts tied to timber with fibers from their very own husks. Once 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 below 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 challenge in French Polynesia: Eleven million tons of phosphate-rich sand have been dug out and exported for agriculture, prescription drugs and munitions. When the mining ceased, the inhabitants fell from round 3,000 to lower than 100. Immediately, there are about 80 full-time residents. Most of them stay 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 1,000,000 deep, round holes, often known as the extraction zone — a legacy of the mining operations. Crossing into that space, particularly at night time, when coconut crabs are lively, may be lethal. Most of the holes are over 100 ft deep, and the rock ledges between them are slender. Nonetheless, some hunters do it anyway, intent on reaching the wealthy crab habitat on the opposite facet.

One night earlier than sundown, a hunter named Teiki Ah-scha meets us in a notoriously harmful space known as Le Bureau, so named for the mining buildings that was once there. Sporting 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 manner — 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 most important specimens, “les monstres,” may be the size of your arm and stay for a century.

There hasn’t been a inhabitants examine on Makatea, so the crab’s conservation standing is unclear — although at night time, rattling throughout the rocks, they appear to be in every single place.

Once 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 are usually not 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 trade.

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

Nonetheless, it’s laborious to make a residing right here. “There isn’t a work,” Mr. Maihota says, as we stand below the celebs and drip sweat onto the forest flooring. He doesn’t wish to speak concerning the mine. The earlier month, he shipped out 70 coconut crabs for $10 every to his patrons in Tahiti.

In common searching spots, hunters say the crabs are smaller or fewer, however hunters depend on the earnings and no one has the complete image of how the inhabitants is doing general.

We go to Mr. Maihota’s backyard the subsequent morning the place the crabs are sequestered in particular person containers to maintain them from attacking one another. He’ll feed them coconut and water to purge their programs, 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 at the least — with out mining, and whereas harvests are nonetheless sustainable — they appear completely tailored to Makatea, holes and all.

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