Habitat destruction post-tsunami and hunting pressures push species to the brink

This largest land crab is called robber crab, but in reality only its life is being robbed by youth, and habitat destruction after the 2004 tsunami.

The population of this crab, also called coconut crab, in the wild archipelagos of Andaman and Nicobar, the only place in India where they are found, is severely fragmented.

This is revealed in a study by Vardhan Patankar and Elrika D’Souza of the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF). 

What is remarkable about this crab is that it climbs a coconut tree, cuts a fruit and drops it. On descending, it de-husks the fruit and, using its pincers, eats the kernel or endosperm, piercing through the eyes in the nut. And it uses the fibre as a bed in its burrow.

The NCF team conducted the study in South Sentinel and Little Andaman in Andaman Islands; and Car Nicobar, Little Nicobar, Great Nicobar, Camotra, Menchal and Cabra Islands in Nicobar Islands.

It held discussions with Nicobari communities to examine how to conserve this species and conducted timed searches in areas where these crabs are likely to be found. The interactions revealed social taboos against hunting the crab in most of the Nicobar Islands. However, in some islands, the community members, particularly the youth, hunted them and consumed them. Although the crab is under Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act, none of the villagers are aware that hunting this species is illegal.

Mr. Patankar and Ms. D’Souza said, “Of the six islands surveyed, we recorded the presence of 17 and 14 crabs on two islands respectively. On four islands, villagers reported the presence of the crab prior to the 2004 tsunami, and on two of these islands, the species may now be extinct. We recommend monitoring of and detailed research on the ecology and genetics of the coconut crab, along with community-based initiatives to conserve the species and its habitat.”

The Zoological Survey of India has submitted a proposal to the Ministry of Environment and Forests to study the habitat of these crabs, survey their population in the wild and assess threats they face, its Director K. Venkataraman said.