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'Human safaris' and illegal fishing threaten world's most isolated tribes

New report: Recently contacted group in India's Andaman Islands face exploitation; uncontacted tribe faces annihilation

"Human safaris” taking tourists through the territory of a tribe that first made contact with outsiders only in the late 1990s threaten the vulnerable Jarawa people, who live in remote areas of India's Andaman Islands, activists warned in a report released this week.

Meanwhile, the North Sentinelese — a tribe that has remained uncontacted on a nearby island — face threats from illegal fishermen targeting their waters despite an Indian government ban on travel within two miles of the island. The tribes of the Andaman Islands — the Jarawa, North Sentinelese, Great Andamanese and Onge — are believed to have lived on the islands for up to 60,000 years but are now vastly outnumbered by hundreds of thousands of Indians who began settling there in recent decades.

The Jarawa people live deep in the forests of Middle Andaman Island, but a highway constructed through their reserve in the 1970s brought outsiders in for the first time, and members of the tribe made contact with nearby towns in 1998, according to indigenous rights group Survival International, who published a report on threats to the Andaman tribes this week.

Despite a 2002 Supreme Court ban on the highway, it remains open and even encourages "human safaris" that bring tourist buses along the road daily hoping to spot members of the tribe. Outsiders have also brought in alcohol and drugs in an effort to sexually exploit Jarawa women, the group said.

A group of Jarawas stopped the tourist bus somewhere on Middle Andaman, India and climbed the roof on May 13, 2006.
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Andaman officials have pledged to bring the Jarawa into the mainstream, even though doing so against their will is illegal under international law. Similar tribes have seen their numbers dwindle after being forcibly settled. Just 53 members of a neighboring tribe, called the Great Andamanese, survived after being moved to settlements, according to Survival International.

Whole populations of Andaman tribes have been wiped out since outsiders stole their land — the Jarawa are just the latest victims of this colonization and they face catastrophe unless their land is protected,” said Stephen Corry, director of Survival International. “We can’t allow this self-sufficient tribe to suffer the same fate as their neighbors, who were decimated by disease and now depend on government handouts to stay alive. It’s time the illegal road was finally closed.”

Another Andaman tribe, the North Sentinelese, has remained uncontacted on a nearby island largely because of their aggressive response to intruders. Wreckage salvagers killed many members of the tribe, which is thought to number between 50 and 200, in the 1980s and 1990s.

In 2006, members of the tribe killed two men after they slept overnight in their boat near the North Sentinel Island, Survival International reported. It is illegal to go within two miles of the island. Despite the law, illegal fishermen are increasingly encroaching into nearby waters.

The Indian Coast Guard apprehended seven fishermen from Myanmar near the island earlier this month, Survival International reported. One man was reportedly on the island itself, close to the uncontacted tribe. Survival International warned that any contact with outsiders could be deadly for the Sentinelese, as they have no immunity to diseases that are common elsewhere and could easily be wiped out by an epidemic.

The uncontacted Sentinelese tribe is believed to have been living on North Sentinel Island for up to 60,000 years, and has rejected any contact with outsiders. No one outside even knows what the group calls itself.

“The Great Andamanese tribes of India’s Andaman Islands were decimated by disease when the British colonized the islands in the 1800s. The most recent to be pushed into extinction was the Bo tribe, whose last member died only four years ago. The only way the Andamanese authorities can prevent the annihilation of another tribe is to ensure North Sentinel Island is protected from outsiders,” Stephen Corry, Survival International’s director, said in a news release.

In the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, which devastated the region, officials flew over the North Sentinel Island to assess the damage to the tribe. As they neared, a man rushed out of the jungle aiming his bow and arrow at the helicopter. After another visit from a distance, officials declared the tribe healthy.

Another of the Andaman tribes, the Onge, survived the tsunami with knowledge passed down through generations. Members of the tribe knew that when the ocean waters receded just before the waves hit, it meant angry spirits were shaking the pillar that held up the sea and it would rush back with destructive power, Survival International said. They headed inland to higher ground and were safe from the waves.

Meanwhile, uncontacted tribes living in South American countries including Brazil and Peru have also been increasingly pushed off their land by mining, logging and oil companies seeking to exploit the area’s resources. Those who have fought back have complained of violent attacks from the outsiders, whose presence alone threatens the tribes with deadly illnesses.

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