Sav­ing the Krabkokonas

Island Life - - Contents -

Peter Miller and his wife Judy, when an­nounc­ing their im­pend­ing trip to Vila, were told by friends, “You have to try co­conut crab!” Ac­cord­ingly they dined at a lo­cal Port Vila res­tau­rant where they tasted the leg­endary dish. “It was very nice but not spec­tac­u­lar. I didn’t know what to ex­pect as I imag­ined it was sim­ply a nor­mal crab cooked in a co­conut sauce.” It wasn’t un­til later that they found out they had dined on an en­dan­gered species that is the sub­ject of a bat­tle be­tween con­ser­va­tion in­ter­ests and it be­ing a source of in­come for re­mote is­lan­ders. “When we re­alised that we had con­trib­uted to the de­cline of an en­dan­gered species we felt sick. No­body had men­tioned this and we don’t want any­one else to make the same mis­take. We can­not be­lieve that restau­rants openly sell these an­i­mals!” Van­u­atu is, or was once, one of the Pa­cific Is­land groups where co­conut crabs could thrive, with ideal con­di­tions for the world’s largest arthro­pods to grow, re­pro­duce and ma­ture, some­times to the ripe old age of 60. Un­for­tu­nately these amaz­ing crea­tures are now threat­ened, be­ing hunted wher­ever they come into con­tact with peo­ple. Al­ready vir­tu­ally ex­tinct in many Pa­cific is­lands, they are on their way to the same end in Van­u­atu. For cen­turies, lo­cals have eaten the crabs as part of their diet, but with lo­cal food sources be­ing plen­ti­ful most of the time, the crabs have been left free to re­pro­duce in the more re­mote ar­eas. Since the in­crease in tourism, their pop­u­la­tion on many is­lands has di­min­ished or been com­pletely re­moved as they are hunted wher­ever they are to sell to restau­rants serv­ing the tourist mar­ket. Man alone is

Story by TJ Kleyn­hans

the preda­tor of the crabs, each of which can grow up to one me­tre in length from leg to leg and some claim that they can weigh as much as 10-15kg...should they have the op­por­tu­nity to grow to adult­hood. Coastal de­vel­op­ment has de­stroyed much of the crab’s habi­tat and ex­ac­er­bated the threat of ex­tinc­tion by in­ten­sive hunt­ing to feed the thriv­ing tourism in­dus­try. Some mea­sures have been taken to pro­tect the species, such as re­stric­tions on the min­i­mum le­gal size al­lowed to be har­vested, and a de­fined open sea­son with a spe­cific quota given to li­cense hold­ers. Sadly these mea­sures are not pre­vent­ing the de­cline in num­bers. Alsen Obed from the Fish­eries Depart­ment in Lu­ganville, Espir­itu Santo, is re­ferred to by his com­pa­tri­ots as “the lo­cal ex­pert” when it comes to the species. He has par­tic­i­pated in sev­eral

sci­en­tific stud­ies, is pas­sion­ate about sav­ing the co­conut crab and is try­ing his ut­most to do so. “Co­conut crabs are a most valu­able re­source as well as a fas­ci­nat­ing species and it would be a tragedy if they were to dis­ap­pear from our shores. We are spend­ing a lot of ef­fort on an ed­u­ca­tional cam­paign in the eastern vil­lages to teach peo­ple that they can make more money show­ing crabs to tourists than killing them, but it is an up­hill bat­tle when they sell for be­tween 1000vt and 3000vt per crab. Be­ing land crabs, they can be caught easily with no cost, us­ing baited trails, smok­ing them out of their hid­ing places or search­ing for the moult­ing bur­rows and ex­ca­vat­ing them by hand. They pro­vide an easy source of in­come for peo­ple in more re­mote ar­eas. The in­crease in tourism has cer­tainly con­trib­uted to the ac­cel­er­ated rate of ex­ploita­tion of the crab. Lo­cal re­search in­di­cates that the crabs are all but ex­tinct on the Santo main­land. They have also been al­most com­pletely re­moved from all eastern is­lands of Santo in­clud­ing the Port Olry area, Pilotin, Mavea, Aese etc. Only one is­land, Lataro is­land, is known to have had de­cent num­bers due to the dif­fi­culty of get­ting ac­cess to the is­land,” he ex­plained. that we could have a guar­an­teed way to pay the school fees ev­ery year, but there is noth­ing left.” Kal­sakau has been forced to re­join the 95% of the vil­lage who are un­em­ployed. When asked about the fu­ture of the re­serve he replied, “The crabs will grow again. It will take a long time, but we know that if the tourists keep buy­ing them in restau­rants they will again be stolen.”

A poacher’s per­spec­tive.

Fa­ther of three, Henry, di­vides his time be­tween Hog Har­bour and Pilotin is­land, a small is­land to the east of Lataro. Pilotin is oth­er­wise un­in­hab­ited but Henry sur­vives on lo­cal pro­duce as well as a bit of rice. For the last five years Henry has made a liv­ing catch­ing and selling ‘nowra’ (cray­fish), tur­tle eggs and of course, co­conut crabs. “I am about fifty years old and have three boys. There are no jobs around here un­less we leave the area and move to Port Vila and even then it is hard to find work. School fees for my chil­dren cost more than 200,000vt a year and the only way to raise that is to cut and pre­pare co­pra. To earn money cut­ting co­pra is very hard. It takes me and six friends a day to cut one ton and then I have to spend the next three days dry­ing it. Each year our vil­lage is is­sued a co­conut crab quota, the quan­tity that we can take into town and sell legally. But there are no more crabs left in the vil­lage. When I first came to Pilotin there were many co­conut crabs here but they are fin­ished now. For the last three years we have had to get them from other places

such as Lataro is­land. It is hard to get to be­cause we have to go at night so they do not see us and the reef is sharp but we are strong and can swim over the reef. When the weather is good we can take ca­noes onto the land.” When asked how many crabs he can get in one night Henry an­swers “When four of us go we get be­tween forty and sixty crabs. If we get sixty that sells for about 100,000vt. But they are nearly fin­ished there now so it is hard to get so many.” When asked what he will do when there are no more crabs he shrugged. “I don’t know.” Poach­ing of the co­conut crab is vir­tu­ally im­pos­si­ble to po­lice and as tourism grows, the num­ber of co­conut crab de­crease at a fright­en­ing speed. “Af­ter mon­i­tor­ing a slower than usual crab sea­son, with di­min­ish­ing quan­ti­ties as well as sizes, I met An­thony and Theresa,” ex­plains Alsen Obed, Fish­eries Depart­ment Of­fi­cer. “To­gether we re­alised that since the sea­son opened in April 2014, as much as 85% of the ed­i­ble stock has been re­moved from this is­land by poach­ers. If you have bought crabs at the Lu­ganville mar­kets or eaten co­conut crab at any res­tau­rant in Santo, they are al­most cer­tainly stolen from this re­serve. Many also find their way to Port Vila to sat­isfy de­mand there. Ven­dors may claim that the crabs are from the Banks or Tor­res Is­lands in the North but this is not true and in fact the trans­porta­tion of them from these is­land groups is also illegal as they have al­most been wiped out there as well.” Be­cause of this, the Depart­ment of Fish­eries closed the sea­son early in Santo. There is as yet no de­ci­sion made as to whether it will re-open in 2015.

Pre­serv­ing our re­sources for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.

But what of Lataro Is­land Re­serve? Theresa ex­plains her dreams. “The ul­ti­mate goal is to re-es­tab­lish the breed strongly on the is­land. The crabs in the first stages of their life de­velop in the sea. Cur­rents run both North and South of the is­land mean­ing that the young will dis­perse back to other is­lands and the main­land. Ul­ti­mately we would like to see the lo­cal vil­lages be­ing able to use them as a sus­tain­able food source. With a 60 year life cy­cle this is not go­ing to hap­pen overnight! To­gether with our cus­tom landown­ers we are try­ing to get Lataro gazetted as a re­serve. Whilst that will im­prove our abil­ity to pro­tect the species, ul­ti­mately where there is a profit for poach­ers, poach­ing will con­tinue. The only real way to pre­vent the ex­tinc­tion of the species is to stop the money tree.” In a joint ef­fort with Fish­eries and other bod­ies, a cam­paign is un­der­way to elim­i­nate mar­ket de­mand. Restau­rants, re­sorts and cruise lines have been asked to make clear their stance on co­conut crabs, as most are pur­chased by tourists, or those serv­ing tourists, who have no idea that they are eat­ing an en­dan­gered species. “Van­u­atu’s strength as a hol­i­day des­ti­na­tion is its nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment” says Theresa. “If the tourist in­dus­try col­lec­tively mar­kets Van­u­atu as an en­vi­ron­men­tal des­ti­na­tion and re­sorts, restau­rants and ships in­clude ar­ti­cles in their com­pendi­ums, on no­tice boards and on their menus which make their con­ser­va­tion pol­icy clear, it will im­prove aware­ness coun­try-wide and will help pre­serve Van­u­atu’s nat­u­ral beauty and species.” Theresa and An­thony have one re­quest to make of din­ers. “Van­u­atu has a won­der­ful range of din­ing op­tions. Please en­joy the de­li­cious dishes from a wide range of cuisines, but de­cline to con­trib­ute to the demise of this breed. When we see a res­tau­rant serv­ing the dish we tell them why we will not eat there and ask them to re­con­sider their menu choices. We are not ex­pect­ing ev­ery­one to do the same but next time some­body asks you if you ate co­conut crab in Van­u­atu please tell them why you didn’t!”



4 The co­conut crab is the world’s largest ter­res­trial arthro­pod, grow­ing up to one me­tre in length, leg to leg and can re­put­edly weigh in ex­cess of 15kg. 4Their claws are pow­er­ful enough to husk co­conuts and can be used to lift and carry weights of up to 28kg. 4The co­conut crab will climb trees to cut down a co­conut, husk it and then carry it back up the tree to heights of ten me­tres be­fore drop­ping it in or­der to crack the shell and ac­cess the flesh in­side. 4They can drop from heights of 4.5 me­tres with­out dam­ag­ing them­selves. 4Although the adult co­conut crab lives on land and can drown in wa­ter, its lar­vae de­velop in the sea for the first month or so of their lives. 4Their ex­oskele­ton is moulted regularly to al­low the crab to grow. Moult­ing oc­curs in the safety of a bur­row and takes around 30 days, af­ter which the crab eats the cast-off ex­oskele­ton.they take up to six years to reach sex­ual ma­tu­rity but are of an ed­i­ble size well be­fore that. Most served in the hos­pi­tal­ity in­dus­try would not have reached breed­ing age. 4Slow grow­ing un­til they are about 40, the crab does not in­crease much in size af­ter that age, but they have been known to live up to 60 years old and some be­lieve ages of more than 100 years are pos­si­ble.

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