The Jarawa

'Human safaris' to the Jarawa

Although India’s Supreme Court in 2002 ordered that the highway through the Jarawa’s reserve should be closed, it remains open – and tourists use it for ‘human safaris’ to the Jarawa. Poachers also enter the reserve.

In 1999 and 2006, the Jarawa suffered outbreaks of measles – a disease that has wiped out many tribes worldwide following contact with outsiders.

URGENT: please e-mail the Indian government asking it to stop the ‘human safaris’ now

A Jarawa woman and boy by the side of the Andaman Trunk Road
A Jarawa woman and boy by the side of the Andaman Trunk Road
© Salomé

The tribes of the Andaman Islands – the Jarawa, Great Andamanese, Onge and Sentinelese – are believed to have lived in their Indian Ocean home for up to 55,000 years.

They are now vastly outnumbered by several hundred thousand Indians, who have settled on the islands in recent decades.

How do the Jarawa live?

Today, approximately 400 members of the nomadic Jarawa tribe live in groups of 40-50 people in chaddhas – as they call their homes.

Like most tribal peoples who live self-sufficiently on their ancestral lands, the Jarawa continue to thrive, and their numbers are steadily growing.

They hunt pig and turtle and fish with bows and arrows in the coral-fringed reefs for crabs and fish, including striped catfish-eel and the toothed pony fish. They also gather fruits, wild roots, tubers and honey. The bows are made from the chooi wood, which does not grow throughout the Jarawa territory. The Jarawa often have to travel long distances to Baratang Island to collect it.

Both Jarawa men and women collect wild honey from lofty trees. During the honey collection the members of the group will sing songs to express their delight. The honey-collector will chew the sap of leaves of a bee-repellant plant, such as Ooyekwalin, which they will then spray with their mouths at the bees to keep them away. Once the bees have gone the Jarawa can cut the bee’s nest, which they will put in a wooden bucket on their back. The Jarawa always bathe after consuming honey.

A study of their nutrition and health found their ‘nutritional status’ was ‘optimal’. They have detailed knowledge of more than 150 plant and 350 animal species.

‘The Jarawa of the Andaman Islands enjoy a time of opulence. Their forests give them more than they need,’

Anvita Abbi, Professor of linguistics, Jawaharlal Nehru University

In 1998, a few Jarawa started to emerge from their forest for the first time without their bows and arrows to visit nearby towns and settlements.

In 1990 the local authorities revealed their long-term ‘master plan’ to settle the Jarawa in two villages with an economy based on fishery, suggesting that hunting and gathering could be their ‘sports’. The plan was so prescriptive it even detailed what style of clothes the Jarawa should wear. Forced settlement had been fatal for other tribes in the Andaman Islands, just as it has been for most newly-contacted tribal peoples worldwide.

Following a vigorous campaign by Survival and Indian organisations, the resettlement plan was abandoned, and in 2004 the authorities announced a radical new policy: the Jarawa would be allowed to choose their own future, and that outside intervention in their lives would be kept to a minimum. This was an enormous success for the international and Indian campaign.

What problems do they face?

Of the four Andaman Island tribes, it is the Jarawa’s situation that is the most precarious.

The Jarawa face many threats:

The road that cuts through their territory and brings thousands of outsiders, including tourists into their land. The tourists treat the Jarawa like animas in a safari park.

Outsiders, both local settlers and international poachers enter their rich forest reserve to steal the game the tribe needs to survive.

They remain vulnerable to outside diseases to which they have little or no immunity. An epidemic could devastate them.

Sexual abuse of Jarawa women by settlers, bus drivers and others.

Pressure from some to force them to integrate into the ‘mainstream’ of Indian society.

The fate of the Great Andamanese and Onge peoples serves as a vivid warning of what may happen to the Jarawa unless their rights to control who comes onto their land and to make their own decisions about their ways of life are recognized.

The Sentinelese

In the wake of the 2004 tsunami this member of the Sentinelese tribe was photographed firing arrows at a helicopter.
In the wake of the 2004 tsunami this member of the Sentinelese tribe was photographed firing arrows at a helicopter.
© Indian Coastguard/Survival

The Sentinelese live on their own small island, North Sentinel, and continue to resist all contact with outsiders, attacking anyone who comes near. They hit the headlines in the wake of the 2004 tsunami when a member of the tribe was photographed firing arrows at a helicopter.

Who are they?

Like the Jarawa, the Sentinelese hunt and gather in the forest, and fish in the coastal waters. They live in long communal huts with several hearths, and use outrigger canoes to travel the seas around their island.

What problems do they face?

The Indian government has made several unsuccessful attempts to establish ‘friendly’ contact with the Sentinelese. Contacting the tribe would almost certainly have tragic consequences, as their isolation makes them very vulnerable to diseases to which they have no immunity. The government now says it will make no further attempt to contact them.

The people of North Sentinel Island know only too well what dangers outsiders can bring.
The people of North Sentinel Island know only too well what dangers outsiders can bring.
© Christian Caron – Creative Commons A-NC-SA

Since the coastal waters around the Jarawa reserve have been so heavily used by poachers, these illegal fishermen are now turning their attention to the waters surrounding North Sentinel. In 2006 members of the Sentinelese tribe killed two fishermen who had illegally approached their island.

How does Survival help?

Survival is urging the administration of the Andaman Islands to adhere strictly to its policy of no further contact with the Sentinelese, and to put a stop to the poaching around their island.

The Onge

The Onge of little Andaman Island call themselves ‘En-iregale’, meaning ‘perfect person’. They were decimated following contact with the British and the Indians, their population falling from 670 people in 1900 to around 100 today.

The Onge live on a reserve less than a third of the size of their original territory. Little Andaman is now also home to Indian settlers, and much of the island has been deforested.

The Indian government tried to force the Onge to work on a plantation in return for food and housing, in a form of bonded labour, but this was unsuccessful. Today the Onge are largely dependent on government rations.

Being able to hunt wild pigs is essential to the Onge, as according to their customs men cannot marry until they have killed a wild boar. Now, however, the Onge complain that outsiders are hunting all their pigs; this is contributing to an already low birth rate among the Onge. Survival is campaigning for their land to be protected from outsiders.

The Great Andamanese

Of the four tribes of the Andaman Islands, colonization proved most disastrous for the Great Andamanese. When the British arrived there were more than 5,000; today, only 56 survive.

The Great Andamanese were originally ten distinct tribes, including the Jeru, Bea, Bo, Khora and Pucikwar. Each had its own distinct language, and numbered between about 200 and 700 people. They are now collectively known as the Great Andamanese.

Last of the Bo Tribe SingsBoa Sr, the last member of the Bo tribe, who died in January 2010, sings.

The Bo were the last of the ten tribes to come into contact with the British, just before the 1901 census. Disease, brought by the colonizers and passed on via the other Great Andamanese tribes, had already decimated the Bo, and they numbered only 48 at the time of contact.

Hundreds of Great Andamanese were killed in conflicts with British settlers, as the tribes defended their territories from invasion. The British then changed their tactics and set up an ‘Andaman Home’ where they kept captured Andamanese. Many more of the tribe died from disease and abuse in the home, and of 150 babies born there, none survived beyond the age of two.

In 1970, the remaining Great Andamanese were moved to the tiny Strait Island by the Indian authorities, where they are now largely dependent on the government for food, shelter and clothing. Abuse of alcohol is rife among the surviving Great Andamanese.