GENERAL LUNA, Siargao Island (MindaNews / 21 January) — Amid a fast changing landscape, the continued influx of tourists in this country’s surfing has taken its toll on the land crab population here.
Bernardo Alciso, 54, a local land crab hunter, said the decline poses a serious threat not just on him whose livelihood depends on it but the island’s delicate ecosystem.
Alciso lives in the world renowned village of Catangnan, where Cloud Nine, the surfing capital of the country is located.
Also known as “Dayong,” Alciso is one of several known hunters of land crabs, locally known as“kayabang.”
Alciso, 54, has been hunting these edible land crabs in Catangnan as a livelihood since he was nine years old.
“When I was teenager, one tambak trap can get as many as 50 land crabs or more,” Alciso said in Siargaonon, but now it’s hard to get that number as the landscape of the town has tremendously changed due to the influx of tourists.
“It’s obvious that the town has changed so fast, from the town center to Catangnan there’s a lot of houses and resorts being built unlike before when that’s virtually full of trees and vegetation,” he lamented.
Traps for crabs
On a Sunday morning, this writer joined Alciso and his son, Velman and his 9-year-old nephew, Gerard, to set up traps in the dense trees, more than a kilometer away from his house.
With a machete and an empty plastic bucket, Alciso began seizing land crabs in the trap with his bare hands.
“It’s inevitable that you get bitten by its claws but I am used to it,” he said with a smile.
“One of the techniques is getting them with your bare hands as fast as you can because if you slowly catch them, you’ll get hurt,” he said.
He earns at least 350 to 400 pesos for a half bucket yield.
He said locals here like to eat kayabang because it comes from the wild and it is cheaper.
Alciso sells three pieces of kayabang for 20 pesos.
In a span of a week, Alciso goes to his “tambak” traps three times.
He said there are four ways to get the kayabang: first through the use of a bamboo tube trap which is inserted into the mouths of occupied burrows where crabs are caught alive and unharmed as they emerge for nocturnal foraging. Second, catch them by hand when they forage at night, a few days before and after the full moon. Third, dig them at the occupied burrows. Lastly, use the “tambak” trap.
“You dig a hole in the land about knee-deep and approximately 3 to 5 meters circumferential. Then you put stones then break a coconut and place on top of the dump the stones which serve as bait. Cover with coconut fronds and that’s a tambak trap,” he said.
Alciso prepares the tambak trap because it’s a time-saving and efficient way of hunting the crab. With an hour spent in the forest, he goes home with his harvest.
“Land crabs creep to get a piece of flesh of the coconut right into dig and once inside they could not escape anymore. This kind of trap could yield as many as 10 or more land crabs in one “tambak” trap,” he said.
“After I get these crabs in a trap, I’ll arrange the pile of stones, put a bait which is a coconut that I split with the use of a machete, put on top of the stones and have it covered with coconut fronds. Then I get back here the day after tomorrow or after the lapse of 24 hours and get these crabs,” he added.
Alciso recalls the days when he used to get a sack full of crabs.
“That was in the 1970’s until early 2000’s,” he said.
Though he will always increase his yield on wet months, the same could not match his catch on regular days back in the old days.
Essential to Ecosystem
A research synthesis published in Biological Reviews in 2009 shows land crabs as among the most important creatures affecting tropical forest growth along coasts, on islands and in mangroves.
Dr. Erin Lindquist, professor at Meredith College and co-author of the published synthesis said if land crabs were removed from these coastal ecosystems, soil nutrient levels may decrease due to the decreased rates of litter decomposition (land crabs move leaf litter into their burrows thereby increasing litter decomposition and increasing nutrient return to the soil) which in turn, may limit plant growth,” according to the published study.
Land crab influence on local vegetation is now thought to be both direct and immediate, with measurable effects noticeable within a single season.
“In addition, land crabs are an important source of food for many other animal species in near-ocean tropical forests,” according to the study.
Dr. Lindquist recommends that in order to preserve tropical coastal forests, land crab populations must also be protected by encouraging the regeneration of disturbed forests, protecting those forests that are yet pristine, and implementing restrictions on the harvesting of land crabs.
“Given their large ecological role in forested coastal ecosystems, the conservation of land crab populations is critical to the conservation of the forest,” she said.
Development for tourists
Alciso attributes the fast decline of land crab population to land development which converts thekayabangs’ territory to mostly tourism-related infrastructure. Add to that the unsustainable practice of harvesting.
Alciso is saddened when he sees people harvesting kayabang during full moon.
“During the full moon, we should not catch them because that’s the time of their reproduction. They need to be in the saltwater in order to hatch,” he said.
“If beachfronts will be fully covered by houses and resorts, where will they hatch?” he asked.
Juvey “Tads” Meras III, 29, a local surfer, echoes Alciso’s sentiment.
“We are sad that this is happening. It’s one of the resources that we should protect and conserve for the next generation,” Meras said, adding it’s unfortunate that the land crab population was getting severely depleted due to unregulated harvesting and significant increase of tourists and settlers in town.
When he was a teenage, Meras hunted kayabang for subsistence.
The surfer said it seems no one is concerned about their existence in the island.
“You can see them almost every day on the road being run over by passing vehicles,” he said.
Jesson Morata, a traveler from Cebu who last visited in 2004 recalls how laid-back the island was.
“At one time, I walked with a friend from Cloud Nine to General Luna. The road was not cemented then, it was around past six o’clock in the evening and full moon and upon reaching what is now Shaka, saw a myriad of land crabs lurking around and we were amazed,” he said.
Morata is concerned about the diminishing population of land crabs.
“What I’ve seen now is the number of structures has rapidly increased, sprouting like mushrooms,” he said.
He wishes his teenage daughter could experience what he had seen on the island.
Ricardo Bag-ao, municipal agriculture officer, echoed what land crab hunters said.
“I arrived here in the town sometime in 1984. That was a year after supertyphoon Nitang hit Surigao province. Bag-ao said the kayabangs helped the locals survive as food was scarce after the town was devastated.
Bag-ao noticed there were no protection and conservation efforts to save the land crabs in town.
“You can virtually see them on the road run over by vehicles and it’s alarming that their population has greatly decreased in the town,” he said.
Bag-ao said it is important to raise awareness among local residents to save this creatures from extinction.
He said land crabs taste almost the same as mud crab.
“It tastes so great when cooked with coconut and herbabuena (spearmint) leaves,” he said.
General Luna Mayor Jaime Rusillon admitted the town has not yet done any measure for the protection and conservation of the land crabs.
“There is no scientific study being conducted on that, no regulation and control on this land crabs and it’s a sad fact that this endemic creature is slowly diminishing,” he said.
Development in the town is now fast changing, with tourism replacing agriculture as the main source of income for the community.
Investments for this year alone town are targeted at least 3 billion pesos, almost triple in the previous year for the purchase of private lands which will eventually convert to tourist-related infrastructure.
For his part, marine biologist Leebert Sanjorjo, who previously worked at the Surigao del Norte Provincial Environment and Natural Resources Office, allayed fears that severe depletion of the population of land crabs in General Luna would mean a great threat to the ecosystem.
“It’s high time to craft an ordinance for the preservation and conservation of these terrestrial creatures,” Sanjorjo suggested.
Given the rise in tourism-related investments in the area, Sanjorjo is recommending that there should be an area left for land crabs. (Roel N. Catoto / MindaNews)