Island Tribes Cope With Loss of Habitat After Tsunami



The primitive tribes of India's Andaman and Nicobar Islands largely escaped last month's deadly tsunami unscathed. But anthropologists fear that the massive damage to their habitat has left them vulnerable.

The five aboriginal tribes that inhabit the lush jungles and beaches of the Andaman and Nicobar islands number less than 1,000 people.

Left undisturbed in their secluded habitats, they subsisted by hunting with bows and arrows, fishing and gathering wild fruit. Never large, the tribes' populations have shrunk over the past several decades, in part because of increased contact with outsiders, who carry diseases the tribes can not fend off.

Most of them survived when the tsunami hit the remote islands in the Bay of Bengal on December 26. But the land on which they live suffered severely and many anthropologists believe that the damage to their habitat has left the tribes facing new challenges.

Initial surveys show that island coastlines have changed shape and salt water has tainted the soil that nurtured coconut palms and fruit trees.

Anstice Justin, head of the Andaman unit of the Anthropological Survey of India, recently led a mission to assess the damage on islands where one of the tribes live. He found sand and debris had filled the shallow waters where the Sentinelese people used to pole their canoes to catch fish.

Mr. Justin says that could pose a major challenge to the Sentinelese, who have no knowledge of fishing in deep waters.

"The shallow waters, the blue lagoon that was there along the south coast of the island is completely eroded and a new field of rocks appears to be in its place," said Anstice Justin. "There will be no fishing ground for the Sentinelese to fish around that area."

Experts say the destruction of a natural resource could make all the difference between survival and extinction for a tribe whose numbers have dwindled to below 250.

An altered landscape is not the only problem. Experts also worry that some of the tribes are getting too much outside contact because of the tsunami relief efforts.

Some tribes, such as the Sentinelese, have long shunned contact with the outside world. But others like the Onges and the Great Andamanese have been exposed to outside influence in the past century and their numbers have steadily shrunk over the same period.

After their coastal homes were destroyed by the tsunami, the Onges and the Great Andamanese had to be evacuated and are now housed in special relief camps in the sprawling archipelago's capital, Port Blair.

Samir Acharya who heads the Society for Andaman and Nicobar Ecology, says endangered tribes like the Onges now number less than 100. He says they should be moved back to their island as quickly as possible to continue life as hunters and food gatherers in their own natural habitat.

"This will be a prolonged contact till they are taken back and resettled in their own area," said Samir Acharya. "They have already been exposed to civilized vices like tobacco and alcohol, so one is naturally worried about that. Ideally, they should go back to their own habitat and start living once again in their own traditional way. That probably is one way of ensuring their continued welfare."

While most of the tribes survived, not much is known so far about the welfare of one of the most secluded tribes, the Shompens, whose island took the brunt of the waves. A few members of the tribe have been sighted and even shot arrows at a military helicopter that hovered over their island on a post-tsunami reconnaissance trip.

Despite worries about how they will cope, anthropologists are elated that the tribes appear to have escaped annihilation in the disaster.

Mr. Acharya says the people may have escaped because they moved to higher ground after they saw the sea water go back, a phenomenon that usually occurs just before a tsunami strikes.

"Probably either by their tradition, or it is a crystallized wisdom of ages that is perhaps there in their unconscious mind that they have learned to fear or be suspicious of receding water and that was what has saved the day," he said.

These tribes are of Mongoloid and Negrito origin, and some are believed to have traveled to the Andaman Islands from Africa some 60,000 years ago. They are considered one of the world's last links to prehistoric times.

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against ISi
November 24, 2015 3:04 AM
The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs