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 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, Espirito 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.
Natural Reserves and their conservation struggle
Lataro Island is owned by expats Theresa and Anthony. “When we first came to Lataro we were seeking a private space with little interaction with the outside world. We had no idea that our presence and subsequent protection of the island would bring conflict. As the whole area had been overfished, over crabbed and basically was low in food sources, we asked the local villages to allow it to become a reserve so that stocks could recover. Over five years this has started to happen with the six kilometers of coral reef bringing larger fish to all adjacent villages and catches improving. Likewise our coconut crab population was on the rise with quantities of breeding-sized crabs increasing monthly. Once the local villages caught onto that and having already almost eliminated the breed from their own areas, they started poaching here. We stepped up surveillance and soon there was open conflict which ended up with our workers being targeted by poachers and canoes and copra sheds belonging to them burnt. It is easy to catch the crabs at night. The poachers first cut coconuts open and leave them in likely locations. They simply return later and collect the feeding crabs. As numbers have dwindled they have taken to looking for their burrows and digging out the defenseless creatures,” Anthony explains. The same struggle is felt by others trying to establish natural reserves. Kalsakau Ser used to enjoy his father’s dream of a ‘krab kokonas’ reserve at Kole Village, East Santo. Established in 1984 by his father, 220 hectares of land was set aside to allow the crabs to grow and thrive in their natural environment. In this remote village money is hard to come by and Kalsakau was proud to act as a tour guide to the few tourists who made it this far from the beaten track. Whilst not a lot came, it still brought a trickle of income, desperately needed to pay school fees and buy staples. From 2000 onwards some residents of neighbouring villages in the North of Santo realised the value of this resource and by 2005 every adult crab had been stolen. “We still have a few small crabs but nothing to show tourists and nothing worth hunting,” explains Kalsakau. “My father established this so 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.”
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 now.” 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.
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!”
Story by TJ Kleynhans. Photos by Anne Simmons and the Department of Fisheries.