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.
With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?i
Carol Pearson
November 29, 2015 1:23 PM
The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?

The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video Political Motives Seen Behind Cancelled Cambodian Water Festival

For the fourth time in the five years since more than 350 people were killed in a stampede at Cambodia’s annual water festival, authorities canceled the event this year. Officials blamed environmental reasons as the cause, but many see it as fallout from rising political tensions with a fresh wave of ruling party intimidation against the opposition. David Boyle and Kimlong Meng report from Phnom Penh.

Video African Circus Gives At-Risk Youth a 2nd Chance

Ethiopia hosted the first African Circus Arts Festival this past weekend with performers from seven different African countries. Most of the performers are youngsters coming form challenging backgrounds who say the circus gave them a second chance.

Video US Lawmakers Brace for End-of-Year Battles

U.S. lawmakers are returning to Washington for Congress’ final working weeks of the year. And, as VOA's Michael Bowman reports, a full slate of legislative business awaits them, from keeping the federal government open to resolving a battle with the White House over the admittance of Syrian refugees.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video After Terrorist Attacks, Support for Refugees Fades

The terrorists who killed and injured almost 500 people around Paris this month are mostly French or Belgian nationals. But at least two apparently took advantage of Europe’s migrant crisis to sneak into the region. The discovery has hardened views about legitimate refugees, including those fleeing the same extremist violence that hit the French capital. Lisa Bryant has this report for VOA from the Paris suburb of Cergy-Pontoise

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

As Thailand takes in the annual Loy Krathong festival, many ponder the country’s future and security. Steve Sandford reports from Chiang Mai.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

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 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.

VOA Blogs