The Perilous Hunt for Coconut Crabs on a Remote Polynesian Island

We meet Adams Maihota in front of his house in the middle of the night. As a crab hunter, he wears white plastic sandals, board shorts, a tank top, and a cummerbund to keep string lengths up. He takes a sprig of wild mint and puts it behind his ear for good luck.

Photographer Eric Guth and I follow Mr. Maihota’s blazing headlights into the forest in search of coconut crabs, locally known as kaveu. The largest terrestrial invertebrates in the world, they are delicious, cooked or fried with coconut milk. Since phosphate mining stopped here in 1966, they have become one of Makatea’s greatest exports.

It’s ankle-breaking terrain. We negotiate the roots of pandanus trees and the infinite Feo, a Polynesian name for the ancient reef rocks that stand tall everywhere. The vegetation hits us in the face and legs, and our skin becomes drenched in sweat.

The traps Mr Maihota set earlier this week are made of notched coconuts tied to trees with fibers from their own shells. When we reach one, we turn off our lights to quietly approach. Then Mr. Maihota throws himself.

A moment later he stands up with a sky-blue crab that kicks its ten legs in wide circles. Even if its fleshy belly curls under the rest of its body, the animal is much longer than the hunter’s hand.

Makatea, part of the Tuamotu Archipelago in French Polynesia, is located in the South Pacific about 150 miles northeast of Tahiti. It is a small raised coral atoll just under four and a half miles in diameter at its widest point with sheer limestone cliffs rising up to 250 feet straight out of the sea.

From 1908 to 1966, Makatea was home to the largest industrial project in French Polynesia: eleven million tons of phosphate-rich sand were excavated and exported for agriculture, pharmaceuticals and ammunition. When mining stopped, the population fell from around 3,000 to less than 100. Today, there are around 80 full-time residents. Most of them live in the central part of the island, near the ruins of the old mining town that is now rotting in the jungle.

A third of Makatea is made up of a maze of more than a million deep, circular holes known as the Extraction Zone – a legacy of mining. Crossing this area, especially at night when coconut crabs are active, can be fatal. Many of the holes are over 30 meters deep and the ledges between them are narrow. Even so, some hunters do it to get to the rich crab habitat on the other side.

One evening before sunset, a hunter named Teiki Ah-scha meets us in a notoriously dangerous area called Le Bureau, named after the mining buildings that used to be there. Mr Ah-scha wears flip-flops and trudges around the holes and balances on their edges. When he chases through the extraction zone, he comes home in the dark with a sack full of crabs on his back.

Mr. Maihota hunted this way too – and he tells me he misses it. However, since his wife fell into a shallow hole a few months before our 2019 visit, she has forbidden him to cross the extraction zone. Instead, he sets traps around the village.

Coconut crabs live in a wide range, from the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean to the Pitcairn Islands in the southern Pacific. They were part of the local diet long before mining. The largest specimens, “les monstres”, can be the length of your arm and live for a century.

There is no population study of Makatea, so the crabs’ conservation status is unclear – although they seem to be everywhere at night when they rattle over the rocks.

If we catch crabs that are not legal – either women or those less than six centimeters above the shell – Mr Maihota lets them go.

If the islanders aren’t careful, the crabs might not be there for future generations. In many locations in the Indo-Pacific, the animals were hunted to extinction or local extinction.

Makatea is at a crossroads. Half a century after the first mining era, a proposal for more phosphate extraction is pending. Although the island’s mayor and other supporters cite the economic benefits of labor and income, opponents say new industrial activity will destroy the island, including its fledgling tourism industry.

“We can’t let her suffer again,” a woman says to me, referring to the island as a living being.

Still, it’s hard to make a living here. “There’s no work,” says Mr. Maihota as we stand under the stars and sweat drips onto the forest floor. He doesn’t want to talk about the mine. The previous month, he shipped 70 coconut crabs to buyers in Tahiti for $ 10 each.

In popular hunting areas, hunters say the crabs are smaller or smaller, but hunters depend on income and no one has a complete picture of how the population as a whole is doing.

The next morning we visit Mr. Maihota’s garden, where the crabs are confiscated in individual boxes so that they do not attack each other. He will feed them coconut and water to cleanse their systems as they eat all kinds of foods in the wild, including carrion.

In daylight, their shells are rainbows of purple, white, orange, and many shades of blue. For now, at least – with no mining and although the crops are still sustainable – they seem perfectly adapted to makatea, holes and everything.

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