Wednesday, December 29, 2004

The Endangered Tribes Of The Andamans

The tsunami's toll continues rising. The real number may never be known. Apart from human life, some valuable natural habitats have also been destroyed. Among these are the Andaman Islands. These islands form a scenic archipelago that was the site of the dreaded Black Water or Kala Pani prison in the British Empire, where many went and few returned. Some highly endangered species of fauna also existed here, including two primitive tribes, the Great Andamanese and the Shompen. From the Times of India

Officials involved in rescue operations are pessimistic, but still keeping their fingers crossed for the Sentinelese and Nicobarese, the two tribes seen as bearing the brunt of the killer wave.

The bigger fear is for the Sentinelese, anthropologically the most important tribe, living on the flat North Sentinel Island. Putting their population at about 100, officials say no body count is possible as the tribe had remained isolated. The Nicobarese, numbering about 25,000, are also feared to have suffered major losses, if not near -extinction. Clustered in 12 villages along the coast of Car Nicobar, the worst affected, it is feared nearly half of them could have been engulfed by the giant wave.

Sunday’s devastating tsunami, which obliterated seaside towns in nine countries, may have wiped away a piece of history too. Two of world’s most endangered tribes — Great Andamanese and Shompen — are feared to have perished in the tidal waves as they ripped apart India’s Emerald Necklace and ravaged the tribal settlements on the tiny islands of Andaman & Nicobar.

Already on the verge of extinction, the primitive Great Andamanese of the Negrito and Shompen of the Mongoloid racial stocks are listed under Scheduled Tribes and numbered just 39 and 150 respectively in the last count. Perhaps, the last remnants of the oldest human population of Asia and Australia may have been lost forever.

“The semi-nomadic Shompen who inhabit the Great Nicobar Island would have been hit very badly. I don’t see how their primitive settlements could have withstood the fury of the Tsunami,” says T.N. Pandit, former deputy director, Anthropology Society of India. Pandit spent almost 26 years in the Andaman & Nicobar region. “It would be a miracle if any of the Shompens would have survived here,” adds Lucknow-based filmmaker Rakesh Manjul, who made documentary on the customs and traditions of tribals here in the mid-nineties. The fate of the 39 Great Andamanese who inhabit the Strait Island appears no less bleak. “The place is just a couple of square kilometres in area. If rescue teams are not sent in immediately there would be no trace left of this endogamous tribe,” says Manjul. “The Andamanese took on the might of the British army in the famous Battle of Aberdeen in 1858. It would be a huge setback if the tribe is lost,” quips Pandit, who was instrumental in rehabilitating the Great Andamanese in 1969. Rescue efforts are on in full earnest, but some beads may just have gone missing from the Emerald Necklace of India.

Contribute, help, hope. Every little bit helps. The company I work for has contributed $1 million so far, nations the world over are pouring out their hearts and pockets, and impromptu contributions are just beginning. Amazon has a contribution link on their site which can be used.

Update: The Indian Government has currently declined foreign aid in this disaster relief, expressing the view that it is capable of handling the relief and rescue operations on its' own. This is in line with an unwritten policy of declining aid, particularly if there are 'strings attached'. International organizations like the Red Cross et al are hard at work in the region and contributions can be made to them directly.

Update 2: CNN has also picked up on the plight of the tribes, ref boingboing. The islands are so scenic, and the history so rich, that it will be a terrible terrible loss.

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