The Thai authorities find shelter for homeless crustaceans

AMID A SLUMP in tourism, one national park in Thailand has seen a dramatic rise in visitors. So numerous are the hermit crabs thronging the otherwise empty beaches of Koh Lanta that shells for them to live in have become a scarce commodity. The Thai government moved quickly to ease the housing shortage, launching a public appeal for empty shells that netted over 200kg. On December 5th these were distributed around the park in a ceremony marking the birthday of the late king, Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Hermit crabs rely on discarded shells to protect their soft bodies, moving to larger shells as they grow. On Koh Lanta and the surrounding, smaller islands, their rapid increase seems to be a natural phenomenon, rather than directly related to the absence of tourists. But the shortage of shells may be man-made: pretty ones have long been gathered to be sold as souvenirs. Crabs had begun to make do with potential death-traps such as plastic caps and bottles.

The shell drive was part of a government initiative to “restore the balance of nature”. “I have instructed all national parks to do whatever it takes,” says Varawut Silpa-archa, the minister for natural resources. His inspiration comes from the hiatus in tourism brought on by covid-19. A ban on international visitors (now lifted, subject to quarantine) and the closure of national parks have helped nature rebound, bringing black-tipped reef sharks back into Thai waters and endangered leatherback turtles back onto Thai beaches. In the coastal provinces of Phang Nga and Phuket, turtles have laid the largest number of eggs for 20 years.

The government has decided to try to mimic the respite forced on it by the coronavirus in future. From now on, all national parks will be required to close for part of the off-season and to limit the number of tourists through a reservation system when they are open. The temporary closure last year of Maya Bay, made famous as the eponymous strand in the film “The Beach” and subsequently overrun by tourists, set a precedent. Although such restrictions mean reduced earnings from tourism in the short term, in the longer run more pristine parks may help to keep the tourists coming—and shelling out.

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This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline "Unshellfish love"


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