The Jarawa tribe in India's Andaman islands face extinction as poaching and tourism threaten their survival.
Many of the Jarawas who could only speak their native tongue are now fluent in Hindi [Picture courtesy: Survival International]
Port Blair - At 120km north of capital Port Blair in India’s archipelago of Andaman and Nicobar, Baratang is an important point of transit for travellers looking to cross shallow stretches of sea that separate towns of middle and North Andaman.
In the last 10 years, Baratang has also become popular among tourists for its active mud volcanoes and beautiful limestone caves spread across narrow waterways around the island.
But often it's the lure of meeting the "Jarawa" that brings thousands of Indian and foreign tourists every year to the area.
Till a decade ago the name "Jarawa" evoked only fear. The bow and arrow-wielding tribesmen were known to be extremely hostile to outsiders. The Jarawas would also occasionally attack settlements adjoining their habitation.
Considered one of the most isolated people on earth, the Jarawa are a hunter-gatherer tribe that has lived in the dense forests of Andaman Islands completely cut off from the outside world for thousands of years. But things are changing fast as modern influences creep in.
No more hostile
For starters the Jarawas are no longer hostile to outsiders and have begun shunning their traditional way of life for perks that come from being a tourist attraction. According to eyewitness accounts, the tribesmen who have for generations survived on hunting and fishing now often ask for food and tobacco from tourists passing through their reserve forests.
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Also, many of the Jarawas who could only speak their native tongue are now fluent in Hindi, the language spoken by north Indians, many of whom have settled there.
But conservationists are watching these changes with alarm.
"Initially it was the odd traveller who interacted with the Jarawas but soon tourists started coming in droves as the word spread about these encounters," said Denis Giles, a Port Blair based rights activist.
"Tourists began bringing them food, tobacco and alcohol," Giles told Al Jazeera. "All you have to do is buy a bus ticket from Port Blair to Baratang and chances are you will catch a glimpse of them," he added.
According to experts, one of the key reasons for the changes in Jarawa lifestyle has been the construction of the Andaman Trunk Road (ATR), a two-lane highway that connects parts of Middle and South Andaman and passes through the heart of Jarawa territory.
Though the Indian government has never formally allowed outside contact with the Jarawas, critics argue that construction of the trunk road has led to free mixing with the tribe, often with disastrous consequences.
"In the past few years outbreak of measles and malaria has been reported among the Jarawas, which was unheard of in the past," Giles said.
Court ban on tourism
Taking cognizance of the situation, India’s Supreme Court has banned all tourism activity around the Jarawa territory and has ordered the creation of a buffer zone with a radius of five km around the Jarawa reserve where no commercial activity can take place.
In addition, the apex court in its judgment in earlier this year also directed the local administration to restrict the number of visitors travelling through the trunk road and also strictly monitor and prevent any tourism activity related to the Jarawas. The Andaman administration in its 2004 Jarawa policy has called for maximum autonomy and minimum interference for the tribe.
But such measures may have come a little too late and experts argue that the damage is irreversible already even as questions remain on the efficacy of hastily implemented protective measures.
"Many of the Jarawas, especially the younger generation, are now too accustomed to their present way of life, they may just refuse to go back to their hunting-gathering ways," said Amlan Dutta, an environmentalist who was followed the developments closely.
Significantly, those advocating isolation for Jarawas maintain that the only way to protect the them is by closing the Andaman Trunk Road altogether, which would immediately stop the human safaris and interaction with outsiders.
But such a move has met with stiff resistance from the local people for whom the trunk road is the only option to access remote parts of North and Middle Andaman on land.
"Any decision to close down the ATR will have serious fallouts for settlers," said Paritosh Halder, who runs a grocery store in the town of Rangat in Middle Andaman.
"Thousands will be deprived of livelihood and quick access to emergency services which are only available in Port Blair," he said.
But even as debate rages on the future of the trunk road, the Jarawas continue to face other threats.
In 2011, a Jarawa youth was allegedly attacked and seriously injured by poachers from neighbouring Myanmar who often illegally cross the international maritime border to smuggle timber and wildlife from Andaman Islands. There have been similar reports of attacks on Jarawas in the past.
Jarawa rights activists also allege that while the foreign poachers are often dealt with seriously by Indian law enforcement officials, the local poaching activity often goes unpunished which has resulted in serious depletion of food reserves of the Jarawas who are solely dependent on the forest for their survival.
"Poaching, both foreign and local, remain rife, despite stringent regulations and long prison sentences for those found guilty," said Sophie Grig, Senior Campaigner of Survival International, an international human rights advocacy group.
"Local poachers in particular are often not prosecuted. Without the animals the Jarawa will not be able to survive. For tribal people to be able to continue to thrive it is essential that they are secure in their land and able to choose and control who comes into their territory," she said.
But above all, the larger debate remains whether the Jarawas, who are often referred to as primitive and pre-historic people should be allowed to choose for themselves.
"The question is whether the Jarawas can make an informed decision now," said Dutta.
"I feel the best way forward is to let them be and not push them into joining the mainstream," he said.
The Great Andamanese
Incidentally, the Jarawas are not the only indigenous group facing a challenge to their existence. The Andaman and Nicobar islands are home to five different indigenous groups and the example of the "Great Andamanese" is often cited when it comes to deciding a future course for the Jarawas.
Once the most numerous of the five major indigenous groups in the Andaman Islands with an estimated population of 6,000, only 52 members of the Great Andamanese tribe survive today. Already, their tribal and linguistic distinctions have disappeared owing to interracial breeding.
According to latest estimates there are about 400 members of the Jarawa tribe currently and time could be running out fast for them. If unprotected, the Jarawas too could go the Great Andamanese way.