n a coconut grove behind a secluded beach in Liberia is a tin cabin cobbled together by a dozen Sierra Leonean divers. They have been plying the coastline in search of “black gold”. Not oil, but the sea cucumber, a large slug-like creature that infests the ocean floor. Local fishermen have traditionally ignored them, since locals deem them unappetising. Yet if dried and exported to China, they can fetch $500 a kilo. Chinese chefs and diners adore them. They are also an ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine, and touted without evidence as a way of boosting virility.
The divers, whose tattoos and swagger make them stick out among Liberians, have not always been itinerant. As recently as 2013 their own waters off Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, were teeming with sea cucumbers. Young men willing to don a breathing hose could make good money. In the dead of night they would gather their prey. But Sierra Leone’s stocks have shrunk and most of the Chinese traders have left. Some divers have tried their luck elsewhere.
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