In Makatea, following the tracks of the kaveu, the “giant coconut crab”

Adams Maihota is waiting for us outside his house under the stars. He is wearing white plastic sandals, Bermuda shorts and a black tank top. A knife handle and pieces of rope stick out from behind his wide belt. He adjusts the headlamp over a faded red cap, then picks up a sprig of wild mint, which he slips behind his ear as a good luck charm. Only then does he invite us, photographer Eric Guth and me, to follow him into the forest in search of a mysterious creature that is an institution in Makatea: the kaveu.

Kaweu, the largest terrestrial arthropod in the world

From its scientific name Birgus latro, or coconut crab in French, the famous caveau, endemic to the Indian and Pacific oceans, is the largest terrestrial arthropod in the world. The wingspan of this giant hermit crab, which weighs up to 4 kg or more, reaches one meter when it spreads its legs equipped with large claws. The animal has garnet-red eyes and a blue, purple or bright red carapace depending on the individual. Its sense of smell allows it to find food at long distances, bananas, coconuts, as well as carrion. During the day, the caveau hides, and at night it climbs trees in search of food. And when it is on the plate, boiled or fried in coconut milk, it is a delight. On the island of Makatea in French Polynesia, which has less than a hundred inhabitants, there are many coconut crabs. But their hunting, which we came to document, is quite a difficult task.

With no airstrip, this atoll in the Tuamotu archipelago is accessible only by sea. Only one freighter a month makes the trip from Tahiti, 220 kilometers to the northeast. In April 2019, I preferred to charter a sweat marara, a speedboat used for inshore fishing, from Rangiroa, the nearest atoll. After four hours of sailing, Makatea loomed on the horizon. From a boat, with steep limestone cliffs rising directly above the waves, the island looks like a huge cream pie on the water. If you look at it from the sky, it looks more like a bean. Approximately 900 hectares – a little more than a third of its surface – are riddled with thousands of very deep holes, traces of phosphate mining in the last century. This is a paradise for coconut crab.

The coconut crab climbs trees to bring fruit. But watch out for the bird he surprises in his nest! © Eric Guth

Makatea: former phosphate mine

Shirtless, wearing shorts and sunglasses, Julien Mai, the island’s mayor, came to meet us at Temao Pier, Makatea’s only port on its west coast. He walked us to his truck, leaning on a crutch. From the coast, the road climbs east through an amazing landscape where forests and industrial wastelands compete for the center of attention. A locomotive is rusting here among the ferns. There, in the middle of the green, an old mechanical workshop sets up its ankylosed machines. We reached the ruins of an old mining company. Now the plot is deserted.

In the middle of the last century, it was a raging hive. From 1908 to 1966, Makatea was the site of the largest industrial project in French Polynesia: 3,000 men used picks and shovels to extract eleven million tons of phosphate-rich sand, exported for fertilizer, agriculture, pharmaceuticals, and explosives. At that time, Makatea was perceived as an El Dorado, equipped with comfort and conveniences that other atolls were deprived of: electricity in all houses, running water, telephone, cinema, radio station, hospital, sports grounds… When operations stopped in 1966, the island was emptied in a few weeks. A hundred die-hards settled on their island, benefiting from the generosity of the mining company, which provided them with all the amenities for free, as well as housing at very low prices. Today, eighty residents live in the center of the land – near the ruins of an old mining town – and in the village of Maumu, on the east coast.

Polynesia: a fabulous epic of a people of seafarers

We sweat profusely as we follow Adams Majhota through the jungle. Despite the night, it is hot and humid. Our feet trip over pandanus roots that are everywhere across the path, we twist our ankles. Vegetation affects the face and legs. At Adam’s signal, we stop and turn off the light. With his hand, he points to the traps set up earlier in the week: gutted coconuts hanging from trees. We approach with caution. Suddenly, Adams pounces on the trunk, then turns toward us, swinging a large bluish crustacean that grabs the air with its ten legs. Its belly is much larger than the hand of a hunter who turns it over to make sure it is indeed a male. Ideally! In Makatea, small crabs and females must be released to preserve the species, which the International Union for Conservation of Nature considers vulnerable. There is no study that measures the Makatea crab population, but locals say they are becoming scarce. Anyway tonight, I get the impression they are all around us. Adams Maihota instantly ties up his catch with his legs bunched under his belly with a rope, wraps it in a pandanus leaf before placing it in a bag where half a dozen others will later be added.

Kaveu hunting is a dangerous, even deadly activity

The next morning we find the hunter in his garden. The crabs received the day before are placed in separate boxes so that they cannot fight. “It’s hard to make a living here,” insists Adams. There is no work.” Since the end of the great phosphorite era, the island has lived in slow motion. In addition to pensioners, there are several civil servants who work in the city hall or in the school, in fact in the same class from kindergarten to primary school. Residents live on small-scale agriculture, beehives, vanilla and copra mining. Any tourists? The island hosts an average of 200 people per month, for whom we offer hiking or rock climbing guides, small boat day cruises and several bed and breakfasts. But the most profitable side business remains the sale of coconut crabs. Last month, Adams shipped five dozen to Tahiti at $12 apiece. They will end up on the tables of restaurants in Papeete at a price of 70 to 150 euros depending on their weight.

Adams Majhota could catch more crabs. To do this, he would have to go to the old phosphate mining area, where caveaus, which have found shelter in abandoned cavities, breed. But crossing this area, especially at night, is dangerous and even deadly. Some pits are about 30 meters deep, and the sharp rock ledges leading to them are very narrow. Ever since Adams’s wife was injured there, she forbids him to set foot there.

At the end of the day, we find another hunter, Teiki Ash, at the Bureau, a former site of a mining company. Teiki Asha, 31, is a “hole kid” as they are known here, young people who are reckless and smart enough to risk visiting these dangerous places at night. He agreed to take us through the territory of the old mines. The land around us seems to be ravaged by a giant storm. In simple flip-flops, and I in sneakers, Teiki Asha walks like a tightrope walker along the limestone ridges, jumping from one pit to another. Our guide advised us to follow his footsteps. So I keep my eyes on his feet, forgetting everything else, the blinding sun, the heat, and the pits at the bottom of which hide huge caves. In some places, the rock we are advancing on is barely as wide as my foot. I reach out to grab a stunted pandanus. Immediately Teiki stops me. “Take care of the plants! he said. We will never know. Vegetation, sometimes rooted in the rock, could give way and throw the unwary into a pit.

As we leave this area, night begins to fall, but it is still just as hot, the rock recovering the heat it has accumulated during the day. Teiki usually returns on this trip with a bag loaded with two dozen crabs.

Tightrope walker in flip flops: Teiki Asha is one of the reckless boys who venture into the danger zone at night. © Eric Guth

Selling coffee, a profitable activity?

How long can Adams Maihota and Teiki Asha hunt kaveu? Avenir Makatea, founded by an Australian and recently bought by a New Zealand company, is indeed proposing to revive phosphate mining with new technologies, this time mechanical, that will allow digging deeper than before. French, by hand. Mayor Julien May sees this as an opportunity to create jobs. Others would prefer to emphasize the lush nature and history of this island, discovered in the 18th century by a Dutch explorer, and suggest the development of ecotourism and memory tourism. The island has an abundance of fresh water, which is rare in the Tuamotu atolls, and is home to endemic species such as the makatea, a magnificent green pigeon with a bright pink patch on its head, endemic plants such as mahame (Glohidion 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 stopped, and the mobilization of opponents is not weakening. Reretini Viritua is one of them. A sign on the facade of his house proclaims: “Man depends on the environment, and the environment depends on the person.” On our last night in Makatea, she invited us to a crab dinner. It raerae (transgender woman, in Tahitian culture), met us at the former house of the director of the mining company where she lives. A neglected dwelling, which she keeps upright with the help of recycled materials. In the kitchen, by the light of a bare bulb, on a large table are boiled crabs, which she caught herself. Reretini shows us how to crack the thick shells with a piece of rock. Caveau’s reputation has not been usurped: they are really very tasty. And for now, they remain the masters of Makatei.

A 100-million-year-old crab has been found, which is very well preserved in amber

➤ The article was published in GEO magazine, No. 518, April 2022.

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Read also:

The coconut crab, this giant crustacean, can climb trees

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