The Perilous Hunt for Coconut Crabs on a Remote Polynesian Island

We meet Adams Maihota outside his house in the dead of night. A crab hunter, he wears white plastic sandals, board shorts, a tank top and a cummerbund to hold lengths of twine. He picks a sprig of wild mint and tucks it behind his ear for good luck.

The photographer Eric Guth and I follow Mr. Maihota’s blazing headlamp into the forest in search of coconut crabs, known locally as kaveu. They are the largest land invertebrate in the world, and, boiled or stir-fried with coconut milk, they are delicious. Since the cessation of phosphate mining here in 1966, they have become one of Makatea’s largest exports.

It’s ankle-breaking terrain. We negotiate the roots of pandanus trees and never-ending feo, a Polynesian term for the old reef rocks that stick up everywhere. Vegetation slaps our faces and legs, and our skin becomes slick with sweat.

The traps, which Mr. Maihota laid earlier that week, consist of notched coconuts tied to trees with fibers from their own husks. When we reach one, we turn off our lights to approach quietly. Then, Mr. Maihota pounces.

A moment later, he stands up with a sky-blue crab pedaling its ten legs in broad circles. Even with its fleshy abdomen curled 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, sits in the South Pacific about 150 miles northeast of Tahiti. It’s a small uplifted coral atoll, barely four and a half miles across at its widest point, with steep limestone cliffs that rise as high as 250 feet straight out of the sea.

From 1908 until 1966, Makatea was home to the largest industrial project in French Polynesia: Eleven million tons of phosphate-rich sand were dug out and exported for agriculture, pharmaceuticals and munitions. When the mining ceased, the population fell from around 3,000 to less than 100. Today, there are about 80 full-time residents. Most of them live in the central part of the island, close to the ruins of the old mining town, which is now rotting into the jungle.

One-third of Makatea consists of a maze of more than a million deep, circular holes, known as the extraction zone — a legacy of the mining operations. Crossing into that area, especially at night, when coconut crabs are active, can be deadly. Many of the holes are over 100 feet deep, and the rock ledges between them are narrow. Still, some hunters do it anyway, intent on reaching 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, so named for the mining buildings that used to be there. Wearing flip-flops, Mr. Ah-scha trots around the holes and balances on their edges. When he goes hunting across the extraction zone, he comes home in the dark with a sack full of crabs on his back.

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

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

There hasn’t been a population study on Makatea, so the crab’s conservation status is unclear — though at night, rattling across the rocks, they seem to be everywhere.

When we catch crabs that aren’t legal — either females or those less than six centimeters across the carapace — Mr. Maihota lets them go.

If the islanders are not careful, he says, the crabs might not be around for future generations. In many places across the Indo-Pacific, the animals have been hunted to the point of extirpation, or local extinction.

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

“We cannot make her suffer again,” one woman tells me, invoking the island as a living being.

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

In popular hunting spots, hunters say the crabs are smaller or fewer, but hunters rely on the income and nobody has the full picture of how the population is doing overall.

We visit Mr. Maihota’s garden the next morning where the crabs are sequestered in individual boxes to keep them from attacking each other. He’ll feed them coconut and water to purge their systems, since, in the wild, they eat all manner of food, including carrion.

By daylight, their shells are rainbows of purple, white, orange, along with many shades of blue. For now at least — without mining, and while harvests are still sustainable — they seem perfectly adapted to Makatea, holes and all.

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China’s Ambitious Plans in Space: The Moon, Mars and Beyond

China’s launch in April of the main module for its newest orbiting space station drew more international attention than expected — for the wrong reasons. After reaching orbit, the main rocket booster tumbled ominously back to Earth in what is called an “uncontrolled re-entry.” The debris landed in the Indian Ocean in May, narrowly missing the Maldives and spurring criticism of how China carries out the launches of its heaviest rocket, the Long March 5B.

More launches like it are coming anyway. The mission was the first of 11 needed to build China’s third, and most ambitious, space station by the end of 2022. Two more Long March 5B rockets will carry additional modules, and other variants will launch smaller parts. Four missions, one planned for June, will return Chinese astronauts to space after more than four years.

China’s first two space stations were short-lived prototypes, but this one is intended to function for a decade or longer. Mr. Xi, the Chinese leader, compared it to the “two bombs, one satellite” exhortation of Mao Zedong’s era, which referred to China’s race to develop a nuclear weapon, mount it on an intercontinental ballistic missile and put a satellite in orbit. Like all of China’s accomplishments in space, it is being touted as evidence of the prowess of the Communist Party-run state.

The International Space Station, jointly developed by the United States, Russia and others, is nearing the end of its intended life in 2024. What happens after that is unclear. NASA has proposed keeping the station going for a few more years; Russia has announced that it intends to withdraw by 2025.

If the station is decommissioned, China’s could be the only game in town for some time.

The station — named, like the first two, Tiangong, or “Heavenly Palace” — will be able to house three astronauts for long-term missions and as many as six for shorter periods. China has selected a team of 18 astronauts, some of whom are civilians (only one is a woman). The first three are scheduled to spend three months in space, which would surpass the 33-day record for Chinese astronauts set in 2016.

Hao Chun, the director of China’s Manned Space Agency, told state news media that astronauts from other nations would be allowed to visit, whether aboard Chinese spacecraft or their own, though they would need a docking mechanism “in line with Chinese standards,” which are different from those on the International Space Station. He said some foreign astronauts were already learning Mandarin in preparation.

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Seychelles Sees Rise in Coronavirus Cases Despite Vaccinations

Marie Neige, a call center operator in Seychelles, was eager to be vaccinated. Like the majority of the residents in the tiny island nation, she was offered China’s Sinopharm vaccine in March, and was looking forward to the idea of being fully protected in a few weeks.

On Sunday, she tested positive for the coronavirus.

“I was shocked,” said Ms. Neige, 30, who is isolating at home. She said she has lost her sense of smell and taste and has a slightly sore throat. “The vaccine was supposed to protect us — not from the virus, but the symptoms,” she said. “I was taking precaution after precaution.”

China expected its Sinopharm vaccines to be the linchpin of the country’s vaccine diplomacy program — an easily transported dose that would protect not just Chinese citizens but also much of the developing world. In a bid to win good will, China has donated 13.3 million Sinopharm doses to other countries, according to Bridge Beijing, a consultancy that tracks China’s impact on global health.

Instead, the company, which has made two varieties of coronavirus vaccines, is facing mounting questions about the inoculations. First, there was the lack of transparency with its late-stage trial data. Now, Seychelles, the world’s most vaccinated nation, has had a surge in cases despite much of its population being inoculated with Sinopharm.

has managed to beat back the virus. A study has shown that the Pfizer vaccine that Israel used is 94 percent effective at preventing transmission. On Wednesday, the number of daily new confirmed Covid-19 cases per million people in Seychelles stood at 2,613.38, compared to 5.55 in Israel, according to The World In Data project.

Wavel Ramkalawan, the president of Seychelles, defended the country’s vaccination program, saying that the Sinopharm and AstraZeneca vaccines have “served our population very well.” He pointed out that the Sinopharm vaccine was given to people age 18 to 60, and in this age group over all, 80 percent of the patients who needed to be hospitalized were not vaccinated.

according to the Seychelles News Agency. Sinopharm did not respond to a request for comment.

an article from The Wall Street Journal on Seychelles, a spokeswoman for China’s foreign ministry blamed Western media for trying to discredit Chinese vaccines and “harboring the mentality that ‘everything involving China has to be smeared.’”

In a news conference, Kate O’Brien, director of immunizations at the World Health Organization, said the agency is evaluating the surge of infections in Seychelles and called the situation “complicated.” Last week, the global health group approved the Sinopharm vaccine for emergency use, raising hopes of an end to a global supply crunch.

She said that “some of the cases that are being reported are occurring either soon after a single dose or soon after a second dose or between the first and second doses.”

According to Ms. O’Brien, the W.H.O. is looking into the strains that are currently circulating in the country, when the cases occurred relative to when somebody received doses and the severity of each case. “Only by doing that kind of evaluation can we make an assessment of whether or not these are vaccine failures,” she said.

But some scientists say it is increasingly clear that the Sinopharm vaccine does not offer a clear path toward herd immunity, particularly when considering the multiple variants appearing around the world.

Governments using the Sinopharm vaccine “have to assume a significant failure rate and have to plan accordingly,” said John Moore, a vaccine expert at Cornell University. “You have to alert the public that you will still have a decent chance of getting infected.”

Many in Seychelles say the government has not been forthcoming.

“My question is: Why did they push everyone to take it?” said Diana Lucas, a 27-year-old waitress who tested positive on May 10. She said she received her second dose of the Sinopharm vaccine on Feb. 10.

Emmanuelle Hoareau, 22, a government lawyer, tested positive on May 6 after getting the second dose of the Sinopharm vaccine in March. “It doesn’t make sense,” she said. She said the government had failed to give the public enough information about the vaccines.

“They are not explaining to the people about the real situation,” she said. “It’s a big deal — a lot of people are getting infected.”

Ms. Hoareau’s mother, Jacqueline Pillay, is a nurse in a private clinic in Victoria, the capital. She said she believes there is a new variant in Seychelles because of an influx of foreigners who have arrived in recent months. The tourism-dependent country opened its borders on March 25 to most travelers without any quarantine.

“People are very scared now,” said Ms. Pillay, 58. “When you give people the right information, then people would not speculate.”

Health officials have recently appeared on television to encourage those who have only taken the first dose of the Sinopharm vaccine to return for the second shot. But Ms. Pillay said she is frustrated that the public health commissioner has not addressed why the vaccines don’t appear to be working as well as they should.

“I think a lot of people aren’t coming back,” said Ms. Pillay.

Marietta Labrosse, Elsie Chen and Claire Fu contributed research.

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China’s Rocket Debris Landed Near Maldives: Here’s What to Know

Debris from a large Chinese rocket landed in the Indian Ocean near the Maldives early Sunday morning, China’s space administration announced.

It said most of the debris had burned up on re-entry. It was not immediately clear whether any of what remained had landed on any of the Maldives’s 1,192 islands.

The possibility, however slight, that debris from the rocket could strike a populated area had led people around the world to track its trajectory for days. The administrator of NASA, Bill Nelson, issued an unusual rebuke after China’s announcement, accusing the country of “failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris.”

The rocket, a Long March 5B, launched the main module of China’s next space station, Tiangong, on April 29. Usually, the large booster stages of rockets immediately drop back to Earth after they are jettisoned, but the 23-ton core stage of the Long March 5B accompanied the space station segment all the way to orbit.

tracks the comings and goings of objects in space, said on Twitter that an ocean splashdown had always been the most likely outcome, but that the episode raised questions about how China designs its space missions.

“It appears China won its gamble (unless we get news of debris in the Maldives),” he wrote. “But it was still reckless.”

Long March 5B is China’s largest rocket, and one of the largest currently in use by any nation. The country’s space program needed a large, powerful vehicle to carry Tianhe, the main module of Tiangong, the new space station, which is to be operational by 2022 after more pieces are launched and connected in orbit.

routinely fell on rural areas downrange, occasionally causing damage. China has since moved many of its launches, including the Long March 5B’s, to a new site in Wenchang, a city on Hainan, an island off the southeastern coast.

Last year, the first launch of a Long March 5B rocket lifted a prototype of China’s crewed space capsule. The booster from that rocket also made an uncontrolled re-entry, with some debris raining down on a village in Ivory Coast.

an international legal framework based on treaties from the 1960s and ’70s in which a country can demand payment for damage caused by another country’s falling rocket.

That has happened once, after Cosmos 954, a Soviet satellite that was powered by a nuclear reactor, crashed in Canada in 1978. Canada billed the Soviet Union for part of the cost of cleaning up the radioactive debris.

In recent years, China has completed a series of impressive achievements in spaceflight. Months ago, it put a spacecraft — Tianwen-1 — in orbit around Mars, and in December it also collected rocks from the surface of the moon and brought them back to Earth.

In May or June, it hopes to further advance its Mars mission by landing a robotic rover, Zhurong, on the red planet’s surface. So far only the United States has had lasting success during attempts to land on Mars.

As it works to make steady progress on space station construction, China could also launch a crew to orbit next month in a spacecraft called Shenzhou. Once in space, they are to dock with the Tianhe module.

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