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Sentinels for our distant past in Andamans?

By JW Dowey - 05 Dec 2014 9:18:1 GMT
Sentinels for our distant past in Andamans?

The hunting on North Sentinel is good, with bird, fish, shellfish and mammalian species like the Andaman wild boar in plenty. But the permission to hunt comes with a birth certificate from North Sentinel only. Beware, Visitors ! wild boar image; Credit: © Shutterstock

No species of hominid is endangered. The last relatives we had were wiped out early in our takeover of the fertile bits of the planet. There are humans who are greatly threatened by the mainstream influences however. It is not only the misuse of alcohol or pervasive influences from employment or removal that affects some people. They are much healthier in their local tribal system of hunting or simple farming than being integrated into a western-style working practice.

In both South America and Asia, there are tribes that have realised some inherent dangers and isolated themselves in a brave defence of their complex culture. Many people who understood these wild places in which they live have died off, leaving us ignorant of jungle and desert, and animals and plants we may never see again. There is a place for people who want to be different, especially when they could die if contact is established.

There are several isolated tribes on the Andaman Islands between India and the Myanmar (Burmese) coast, similar in characteristics to the Filipino Aeta, the Malay Semang or native Australians. The 400 Jarawa are a thriving and nomadic tribe of hunter-gatherers who have been regularly visited by tourists, poachers and others, while the Great Andamanese, the Bo, the Onge and the Sentinelese have been variously known to outsiders, despite an independence from the mainstream that is thought to stretch back 55,000 years.

The British first colonised the Amdamans and Nicobars after 1800, creating terrible ravages of western disease among the Great Andamanese. Indian immigrants now form a population of more than half a million, dwarfing the numbers of the various islanders. Illegal Burmese fishermen also bother the native islanders in several ways. Even now, though, the major threat is of flu or other infections wiping out the native population, just as the last of the Bo died in 2010. That leaves us with The Ecologist and a stirring current article you should read - of the people of North Sentinel Island in the south-west of the Andamans.

The Sentinelese exist in the Bay of Bengal in a state of total isolation. Like the Jarawa, they number around 400 and live by eating fish, meat such as that of the endemic Andaman wild boar, fruit and the other rich produce of their native rainforest. Their technology just stretches to flatbows and deadly arrows and even harpoons, sometimes incorporating scavenged metal from shipwrecks. Unlike the Jarawa, they appear to have made decisions about outsiders such as the Burmese that cause them to attack and kill those who land there (in 2006). Fishermen and poachers often invade their seas, and, less often, the island. They are perfectly within their rights to maintain such independence, given our knowledge of the dangers and their experience of possibly quite unethical activity by the Burmese fishermen who have previously approached them.

To protect this one tribe, given the loss of the rights of all the others, we can hope either an international or an Indian protectorate (recognised so far as part of the Indian Union Territory) for this tiny island could work. It is certainly a unique nature reserve, but the prime nature needing help is human. The rest of us can only benefit by giving these people peace in their environment and automatically providing a pristine habitat for the future. Survival International are a global movement for tribal people’s rights. They believe this small tribe are the most vulnerable anywhere, and that the Jarawa desperately need protection from people who abuse their land-rights and their women. The Ecologist magazine are right to include this rights issue in their comprehensive coverage of ecologies everywhere. We all really need to help these people, without actually going there!