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 enter the Jarawa’s forest and steal the animals the tribe rely on for their survival. They have also introduced alcohol and marijuana and are known to sexually abuse Jarawa women.

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

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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.

The Jarawa

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.

The Jarawa thatch their shelters with leaves from the forest.
The Jarawa thatch their shelters with leaves from the forest.
© Survival

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.

I am civilized and they are not civilized.

An Indian lawyer making her case for the forcible settlement of the Jarawa, in 2001

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.

No attempts to bring them to the mainstream of society should be made.

Indian government Jarawa policy, 2004

The Great Andamanese

Of the four tribes of the Andaman Islands, 19th century colonization proved most disastrous for the Great Andamanese people.

Boa Sr was the last member of the Bo tribe.
Boa Sr was the last member of the Bo tribe.
© Alok Das

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

When the British settlers arrived in 1858, there were more than 5,000 Great Andamanese living in the islands. However, hundreds were killed in conflicts as they defended their territories from British invasion, and thousands more were wiped out in devastating epidemics of measles, influenza and syphilis, all introduced by the British.

We are in reality laying the foundation stone for civilising a people hitherto living in a perfectly barbarous state, replete with treachery, murder and every other savageness; besides which it is very desirable, even in a political point of view, keeping these people in our custody as hostages, for it undoubtedly secures the better behaviour of these inhospitable people towards our Settlement.

Tyler, British colonial official of the time

In 1970, the Indian authorities moved the remaining Great Andamanese to the tiny Strait Island, where they are now dependent on the government for food, shelter and clothing, and where alcohol abuse and tuberculosis are rife.

Today, just 53 Great Andamanese people survive.

In the 1860s, the British established an ‘Andaman Home’ where they kept captured Great Andamanese. Hundreds of the tribe died from disease and abuse in the home, and of 150 babies born there, none survived beyond the age of two.

Boa Sr. died in 2010. The Bo were the last of the ten tribes to come into contact with the British, just before the 1901 census. It took little more than a century for up to 55,000 years of human history to be wiped out.

Last of the Bo Tribe SingsBoa Sr, the last member of the Bo tribe, who died in January 2010, sings.
The Jarawa are lucky as they shun contact with city dwellers. It is so nice to see they’re not dependent on outsiders for food and shelter. Our boys know nothing about hunting and cannot feed themselves.

Boa Sr, the last of the Great Andamanese Bo tribe

The Onge

The Onge call themselves En-iregale, which means ‘perfect person.’
They have long lived on Little Andaman Island, the most southerly island in the Andaman archipelago.

The Onge population was also decimated following contact with British colonists and Indian settlers; it fell from 670 in 1900 to around 112 today.

Until the 1940s the Onge were the sole permanent inhabitants of Goubalambabey (the Onge name for Little Andaman). They now share the 732 sq km island with more than 18,000 settlers from India, Bangladesh and the Nicobar islands. In 1976 the Onge were settled in order to have ‘the basic facilities for hygienic living and protection against elements of nature’. They now live in a reserve in Dugong Creek that is a fraction of the size of their original territory.

A man from the Onge tribe relaxing in his hammock, Andaman Islands.
A man from the Onge tribe relaxing in his hammock, Andaman Islands.
© Survival International

The Onge’s settlements were completely destroyed by the Tsunami in 2004 but all of the Onge survived. They knew that if the sea receded rapidly it would later rush back with a destructive power. When they felt the earthquake and saw the water level drop dramatically they gathered on the shore and hurled stones into the sea to trick the angry spirits (who they believed were shaking the pillar that holds up the sea) into believing that the Onge were in the water. They then quickly headed inland, safe from the waves that they knew would follow.

Much of Little Andaman Island has been deforested and the Onge must now compete with settlers for wild boar and fish. Although the Onge still spend much of their time hunting and collecting honey in what remains of their forest, they are largely dependent on the Andaman authorities for rations of rice, lentils and other commodities. Concerned by the dependency they had created, the Indian government attempted to force the Onge to work for their rations in a coconut plantation, a form of bonded labour, but this was unsuccessful.

The Onge consider white teeth a sign of a dead body so they chew a bark to turn their teeth red. They decorate their bodies and their faces with white and ochre clay.

Despite government rations and medical care, their health has declined since they were settled and they suffer from high rates of malnutrition, infant morality and perilously low growth rate. Infant and child mortality rates doubled in the years after they were settled.

Onge woman and child. The Onge paint their bodies, including their faces, with white clay.
Onge woman and child. The Onge paint their bodies, including their faces, with white clay.
© Survival

Births of Onge children are announced in the Andamans’ press in a manner akin to when pandas are successfully bred in zoos. The Onge’s population suffered a further devastating blow in 2008 when eight Onge men died after drinking an unknown liquid they’d found on the shore. It is believed that the Onge thought the liquid was alcohol, which has been introduced to the Onge by settlers.

The Sentinelese

The Sentinelese attracted international attention in the wake of the 2004 Asian tsunami, when a member of the tribe was photographed on a beach, firing arrows at a helicopter which was checking on their welfare.

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 forested island called North Sentinel, which is approximately the size of Manhattan. They continue to resist all contact with outsiders, attacking anyone who comes near. In 2006, two Indian fishermen, who had moored their boat near North Sentinel to sleep after poaching in the waters around the island, were killed when their boat broke loose and drifted onto the shore. Poachers are known to fish illegally in the waters around the island, catching turtles and diving for lobsters and sea cucumbers.

North Sentinel Island, home of the Sentinelese, as seen from above.
North Sentinel Island, home of the Sentinelese, as seen from above.
© Survival

Most of what is known about the Sentinelese has been gathered by viewing them from boats moored more than an arrows distance from the shore and a few brief periods where the Sentinelese allowed the authorities to get close enough to hand over some coconuts. Even what they call themselves is unknown.

The Sentinelese hunt and gather in the forest, and fish in the coastal waters. Unlike the neighbouring Jarawa tribe, they make boats – these are very narrow outrigger canoes, described as ‘too narrow to fit two feet in’. These can only be used in shallow waters as they are steered and propelled with a pole like a punt.

It is thought that the Sentinelese live in three small bands. They have two different types of houses; large communal huts with several hearths for a number of families, and more temporary shelters, with no sides, which can sometimes be seen on the beach, with space for one nuclear family.

The women wear fibre strings tied around their waists, necks and heads. The men also wear necklaces and headbands, but with a thicker waist belt. The men carry spears, bows and arrows.

The Sentinelese enjoy excellent health, unlike those Andamans tribes whose lands have been destroyed.
The Sentinelese enjoy excellent health, unlike those Andamans tribes whose lands have been destroyed.
© Survival International

Although commonly described in the media as ‘Stone Age’ this is clearly not true. There is no reason to believe the Sentinelese have been living in the same way for the tens of thousands of years they are likely to have been in the Andamans. Their ways of life will have changed and adapted many times, like all peoples. For instance, they now use metal which has been washed up or which they have recovered from shipwrecks on the island reefs. The iron is sharpened and used to tip their arrows.

From what can be seen from a distance, the Sentinelese islanders are clearly extremely healthy, alert and thriving, in marked contrast to the Onge and the Great Andamanese tribes to whom the British attempted to bring ‘civilization’. The people who are seen on the shores of North Sentinel look proud, strong and healthy and at any one time observers have noted many children and pregnant women.

The Sentinelese stand guard on an island beach.
The Sentinelese stand guard on an island beach.
© Christian Caron – Creative Commons A-NC-SA

In the late 1800s M.V. Portman, the British ‘Officer in Charge of the Andamanese’ landed, with a large team, on North Sentinel Island in the hope of contacting the Sentinelese. The party included trackers, from Andamanese tribes who had already made contact with the British, officers and convicts.

They found recently abandoned villages and paths but the Sentinelese were nowhere to be seen. After a few days they came across an elderly couple and some children who, ‘in the interest of science’ were taken to Port Blair, the island’s capital. Predictably they soon fell ill and the adults died. The children were taken back to their island with a number of gifts.

It is not known how many Sentinelese became ill as a result of this ‘science’ but it’s likely that the children would have passed on their diseases and the results would have been devastating. It is mere conjecture, but might this experience account for the Sentinelese’s continued hostility and rejection of outsiders?

During the 1970s the Indian authorities made occasional trips to North Sentinel in an attempt to befriend the tribe. These were often at the behest of dignitaries who wanted an adventure. On one of these trips two pigs and a doll were left on the beach. The Sentinelese speared the pigs and buried them, along with the doll. Such visits became more regular in the 1980s; the teams would try to land, at a place out of the reach of arrows, and leave gifts such as coconuts, bananas and bits of iron. Sometimes the Sentinelese appeared to make friendly gestures; at others they would take the gifts into the forest and then fire arrows at the contact party.

The Sentinelese have lived on their island for up to 55,000 years and have no contact with the outside world.
The Sentinelese have lived on their island for up to 55,000 years and have no contact with the outside world.
© Survival International

In 1991 there appeared to be a breakthrough. When the officials arrived in North Sentinel the tribe gestured for them to bring gifts and then, for the first time, approached without their weapons. They even waded into the sea towards the boat to collect more coconuts. However, this friendly contact was not to last, although gift dropping trips continued for some years, encounters were not always friendly. At times the Sentinelese aimed their arrows at the contact team, and once they attacked a wooden boat with their adzes (a stone axe for cutting wood). No one knows why the Sentinelese first dropped, and then resumed their hostility to the contact missions, nor if any died as a result of diseases caught during these visits.

In 1996 the regular gift dropping missions stopped. Many officials were beginning to question the wisdom of attempting to contact a people who were healthy and content and who had thrived on their own for up to 55,000 years. Friendly contact had had only a devastating impact on the Great Andamanese tribes. Sustained contact with the Sentinelese would almost certainly have tragic consequences.

In the following years only occasional visits were made, again with a mixed response. After the Tsunami in 2004, officials made two visits to check, from a distance, that the tribe seemed healthy and were not suffering in any way. They then declared that no further attempts would be made to contact the Sentinelese.

Contact Mission SentineleseFootage from one of many government attempts to establish contact with the isolated Sentinelese by fostering a dependence on outside gifts such as coconuts. After protests by Survival and local supporters, such contact trips have officially stopped, as they put both parties at grave risk.

Their extreme isolation makes them very vulnerable to diseases to which they have no immunity, meaning contact would almost certainly have tragic consequences for them.

Following a campaign by Survival and local organisations, the Indian government abandoned plans to contact the Sentinelese, and their current position is still that no further attempts to contact the tribe will be made.

Periodic checks, from boats anchored at a safe distance from shore, are made to ensure that the Sentinelese appear well and have not chosen to seek contact.

What problems do the tribes in the Andaman Islands 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 brings thousands of outsiders, including tourists, into their land. The tourists treat the Jarawa like animas in a safari park.

  • Vehicles queue to enter the Jarawa reserve along the Andaman Trunk Road
    Vehicles queue to enter the Jarawa reserve along the Andaman Trunk Road
    © G Chamberlain/ Survival
  • Outsiders, both local settlers and international poachers enter their rich forest reserve to steal the game the tribe needs to survive.
  • PoachersJarawa denounce poachers who invade their land. This group was filmed as they voluntarily came out of their reserve to complain to local administration officials about the poaching.
  • They remain vulnerable to outside diseases to which they have little or no immunity. In 1999 and 2006, the Jarawa suffered outbreaks of measles – a disease that has wiped out many tribes worldwide following contact with outsiders. An epidemic could devastate the tribe.

  • Jarawa women have been sexually abused by poachers, settlers, bus drivers and others.

  • The girls say, that the outside boys pressure them to do a lot. They pressure them with their hands and fingernails, when the girls get angry. They chase them under the influence of alcohol. They have sex with the girls… They drink alcohol in the girls’ house. They sleep in the Jarawa’s house. They smoke marijuana and then chase the girls.

    Jarawa man speaking out against the abuse in 2014
  • There is pressure from some, including the island’s MP, to force the Jarawa 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.

Attempts to ‘mainstream’ the Jarawa

In India, ‘mainstreaming’ refers to the policy of pushing a tribe to join the country’s dominant society. It has a devastating effect on tribal peoples. It strips them of their self-sufficiency and sense of identity, and leaves them struggling at the very margins of society. Rates of disease, depression, addiction and suicide within the tribal community almost inevitably soar.

In 2010 the Andaman Islands’ member of parliament called for ‘quick and drastic steps be taken to bring the Jarawa up to the basic mainstream characteristics’ and for children to be sent to residential schools in order to ‘wean’ the children away from the tribe. He described the Jarawa as being ‘in a primitive stage of development’ and ‘stuck in time somewhere between the stone and iron age’.

Influential figures in India, including government ministers, have often called for the Jarawa to be assimilated, believing that they are ‘backward’ or ‘primitive’. This request, however, has not come from the Jarawa, who show no sign of wanting to leave their life in the forest.

The outsiders are bad men. They abuse us. I prefer to stay in the jungle.

Enmei, a Jarawa man

Such an attitude can stem from racist disdain or from a genuine concern for the tribe’s welfare; either way it is always based on a misunderstanding of both the Jarawa’s current excellent quality of life, and the miserable experiences of tribal people who have been forcibly assimilated.

Since 2004, the Indian government’s policy towards the Jarawa has been very positive: the general principle is that the tribe themselves should control their future, with minimal intervention from the state. However, there are still many who are clamoring for this to change.

What is Survival’s position on ‘mainstreaming’?

Survival advocates neither isolation nor integration, believing – as with all tribal peoples – that they themselves are best placed to determine what, if any, changes they wish to make to their lives. Crucial to having the time and space to make these decisions is that their land is properly protected from outside incursions.

Land Encroachment and poaching

The principal threat to the Jarawa’s existence comes from encroachment onto their land, which was sparked by the building of a highway through their forest in the 1970s. The Andaman Trunk Road (ATR) brings outsiders into the heart of their territory.

The ATR has also encouraged ‘human safaris’, where tour operators drive tourists along the road in the hope of ‘spotting’ members of the tribe.

Illegal hunting, fishing and gathering, from both local and foreign poachers, remains a serious threat to the Jarawa’s survival. The theft of the food they rely on risks robbing them of their self sufficiency and driving the tribe to extinction.

What is Survival’s position on land encroachment and poaching?

Since 1993 Survival has been lobbying the Indian government to close the Andaman Trunk Road, believing that only the Jarawa should decide if, when and where outsiders traverse their land.

Leaflet given to tourists arriving on the Andaman Islands about the 'human safari park' boycott.
Leaflet given to tourists arriving on the Andaman Islands about the 'human safari park' boycott.
© Search/Survival

In 2002, the Indian Supreme Court ordered the closure of the road, yet it still remains open.

In 2013, following a campaign from Survival and local organization ‘Search’ to ban ‘human safaris’, the Supreme Court banned tourists from travelling along the ATR for seven weeks. After the Andaman Authorities changed their own rules in order to allow the human safaris to continue, the Supreme Court had no choice but to reverse the ban.

The Andaman Authorities have committed to opening an alternative sea route to Baratang by March 2015. This sea route would stop the human safaris as tourists would no longer have an excuse to drive through the Jarawa’s forest. Despite promises to the Supreme Court and pressure from Survival and local organisation Search, the project is already running woefully behind schedule.

Survival has been calling for the Andaman authorities to clamp down on poaching and to ensure that those arrested are prosecuted. Although in recent years many poachers have been arrested, none have been been sentenced by the courts, despite the offence carrying a prison term of up to seven years.

The Sentinelese

Survival is urging the administration of the Andaman Islands to:

Adhere strictly to its policy of making no attempt to contact the Sentinelese
and put a stop to the poaching around their island.

Act now to help the Jarawa

Survival’s Andamans campaign focuses on the Jarawa, because their situation is the most precarious of the four tribes. Your support is vital for the Jarawa’s survival. There are lots of ways you can help.