In Macatea, on the path of coffee, “giant coconut crab”

Adams Maihota is waiting for us near his house under the stars. He is wearing white plastic sandals, Bermuda shorts and a black T-shirt. A knife handle and pieces of rope protrude from its wide belt. He adjusts the headlamp to a faded red hat, and then takes a sprig of wild mint, which he puts behind his ear as an amulet for happiness. Only then does he invite us, the photographer Eric Guth and me, to follow him into the woods in search of the mysterious creature that is the institution in Maccabee: the caveu.

Caveu, the largest terrestrial arthropod in the world

From its scientific name Birgus latro, or coconut crab in French, the famous cave, endemic to the Indian Ocean and the Pacific, is the largest terrestrial arthropod in the world. The wingspan of this giant hermit crab, which weighs up to 4 kg and more, reaches one meter when it spreads its legs, equipped with impressive claws. The animal has garnet-red eyes and blue, purple or bright red shell, depending on the individual. His sense of smell allows him to find food at a great distance, bananas, coconuts, and carrion. Caveu hides during the day and goes out at night to climb trees in search of food. And when it is on a plate, boiled or fried in coconut milk, it is a pleasure. The island of Macatea in French Polynesia, home to less than a hundred people, has many coconut crabs. But their hunt, which we have come to document, is quite a challenge.

Without a runway, this atoll in the Tuamotu archipelago is accessible only by sea. Only one cargo ship sails monthly from Tahiti, 220 kilometers northeast. In April 2019, I preferred charter a path marara, a speedboat used for coastal fishing, from Rangiroa, the nearest atoll. After four hours of sailing, Makatei loomed on the horizon. From the boat, with its steep limestone cliffs rising directly above the waves, the island evokes a huge cream cake on the water. When viewed from the sky, it is more like smallpox. About 900 hectares – just over a third of its surface – are permeated with thousands of very deep pits, the remnants of phosphate mining in the last century. This is a paradise for coconut crabs.

Coconut crab climbs trees to bear fruit. But beware of the bird that it will surprise in its nest! © Eric Guth

Macatea: a former phosphate mine

Shirtless, in shorts and sunglasses, Julien May, the mayor of the island, came to greet us at the pier of Temao, the only port of Macatea, on its west coast. He drove us to his truck, leaning on a crutch. From the coast, the road rises east through an amazing place where forests and industrial wastelands compete for the spotlight. Here, among the ferns, the locomotive is rusting. There, in the middle of the greenery, an old mechanical workshop installs its ankylosed machines. We reached the ruins of an old mining company. Now the site is uninhabited.

In the middle of the last century it was a stormy hive. From 1908 to 1966, Macatea hosted the largest industrial project in French Polynesia: 3,000 people extracted eleven million tons of phosphate-rich sand with picks and shovels, exported for fertilizers, agriculture, pharmaceuticals and explosives. At that time, Macatea was considered Eldorado, provided with comfort and convenience that other atolls were deprived of: electricity in all houses, plumbing, telephone, cinema, radio, hospital, sports grounds … When activities ceased in 1966, the island was devastated in a few weeks . Hundreds of zealous people clung to their island, taking advantage of the generosity of the mining company, which provided them with all the amenities for free, as well as provided them with housing at very low prices. Today, eighty people live in the center of the earth – near the ruins of the old mining town – and in the village of Mumu on the east coast.

Macatea, a Polynesian island that oscillates between phosphate and ecotourism

We sweat profusely, following Adams Mayhot through the jungle. Despite the night, it’s hot and humid. Our feet stumble against the roots of the pandanus, standing everywhere across the path, we twist our ankles. Vegetation affects our face and legs. At Adam’s signal, we stop and turn off the light. With his hand he points to the traps set at the beginning of the week: gutted coconuts hanging from trees. We approach with caution. Suddenly Adams rushes to the trunk and then returns to us, swinging a large blue crustacean that clings to the air with its ten legs. His belly is much larger than the hand of a hunter who turns it over to make sure it is indeed a male. Ideally! In Macatea, small crabs and females need to be released to preserve species that the International Union for Conservation of Nature considers vulnerable. There is no study measuring the population of macatea crabs, but locals say they are becoming scarce. Anyway, tonight I have the impression that they are all around us. In a moment, Adams Mayhot ties his catch, his legs grouped under his stomach, with a rope, and wraps it in a sheet of pandanus before putting it in a bag, where half a dozen others will later be added.

Cave hunting is a dangerous, even deadly activity

The next morning we find a hunter in his garden. Crabs are placed in separate boxes the day before to prevent fighters. “It’s hard to make a living here,” Adams insists. There is no work. ” Since the end of the Great Phosphate Era, the island has been in slow motion. In addition to retirees, there are several other civil servants who work in the town hall or school, in fact one class from kindergarten to primary school. The inhabitants live on small-scale agriculture, hives, vanilla and the exploitation of copra. Some tourists? The island hosts an average of 200 people a month, to whom we offer guides for hiking or rock climbing, day cruises on small boats and several beds and breakfasts. But selling coconut crabs remains the most lucrative side business. Last month, Adams sent five dozen to Tahiti for $ 12 each. They will be on the tables of Papeete restaurants at a price of 70 to 150 euros, depending on weight.

Adams Mayhot could catch more crabs. To do this, he would have to go to the area of ​​old phosphate mining, where coffee breeds, which have found refuge in abandoned cavities. But crossing this area, especially at night, is dangerous and even deadly. Some pits are about 30 meters deep, and the sharp rocks leading to them are very narrow. Ever since Adams’ wife injured herself there, she has forbidden him to go there.

At the end of the day, we find another hunter, Teiki A-sha, at the Bureau, the former site of a mining company. Teiki A-sha at the age of 31 is a “pit child”, as they are called here, young people who are frivolous and agile enough to go to these dangerous places at night. He agreed to take us through the old mines. The land around us seems to have been ravaged by a giant storm. Dressed in simple flip-flops and I’m in sneakers, Teiki A-sha walks like a tightrope walker along limestone ridges, jumping from one hole to another. Our guide advised us to follow in his footsteps. So I keep my eyes on him, forgetting everything else: the blinding sun, the heat, and the holes at the bottom of which are huge caves. In some places, the rock on which we move, barely reaches the width of my foot. I reach out to grab the short pandanus. Teiki stops me instantly. “Beware of plants! he said. We never know. Vegetation, sometimes rooted in the rock, could succumb and throw the careless into the pit.

The night begins to subside as we leave the area, but it is still hot, the rock restores the heat accumulated during the day. Teiki usually comes back with a bag loaded with two dozen crabs.

A tightrope walker in flip-flops: Teiki A-sha is one of the reckless young people who go to the danger zone at night. © Eric Guth

Selling kavue, profitable business?

How long can Adams Mayhot and Teiki A-sha continue to hunt for coffee? Avenir Makatea, founded by an Australian and recently bought by a New Zealand company, is indeed proposing to resume phosphate production using new technologies, this time mechanical, which will allow digging deeper than before. French, by hand. Mayor Julien May sees this as an opportunity to create jobs. Others prefer to highlight the lush nature and history of the island, discovered in the 18th century by a Dutch explorer, and suggest developing ecotourism and memory tourism. The island has plenty of fresh water, which is rare in Tuamotu atolls, and is home to endemic species such as the macatea fruit pigeon, the magnificent green pigeon with a bright pink head, and endemic plants such as the Mahame (Glochidion wilderi) and mouo (Homalium mouo), and one of the last primary forests in this part of the South Pacific.

So far, the mining project has been suspended, and the mobilization of opponents is not weakening. Reretini Viritua is one of them. On the facade of his house, a plaque reads: “Man depends on the environment, and the environment depends on man.” She invited us to a crab dinner on our last night in Macathea. It raerae (a transgender woman in Tahitian culture) met us at the former home of the director of the mining company where she lives. Abandoned housing, which she keeps upright with recycled materials. In the kitchen, under the light of a bare light bulb, on a large table lie boiled, crabs, which she herself hunted. Retretini shows us how to break thick shells with a piece of rock. The reputation of coffee is not usurped: they are really delicious. And while they remain the owners of Macatea.

A very well-preserved crab 100 million years old has been found in amber

➤ Article published in GEO magazine, № 518, April 2022.

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