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Island Tribes Cope With Loss of Habitat After Tsunami

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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.

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