Concerns after isolated Indian tribes moved

Last updated at 16:18 06 January 2005

Indian authorities have evacuated dozens of the world's most primitive people from their tsunami-hit homelands in the Andaman and Nicobar islands, potentially exposing them to unwelcome outside influence.

More than two dozen of the dwindling Great Andamanese tribe were moved from a government reserve on Strait Island to a guesthouse in the capital, Port Blair, after their homes and habitat were destroyed.

Eight members of the tiny hunter-gatherer Shompen tribe were also flown out by helicopter after their settlement on Great Nicobar island was submerged. They have been settled in relief camps on a nearby island, a government officer said on Thursday.

"We had to do it, there wasn't a choice. The area

has become distressed," said KC Ghoshal, assistant commissioner in the tribal welfare department.

He said aerial surveys suggested the rest of the nearly 400-strong Shompens, who lived in the forests and hills on the island, had survived the tsunami.

Ghoshal said the Shompens, who almost never leave their island, have been kept in a special area in Campbell Bay island to protect them from external influence. "We are very aware of the dangers

involved in unnecessary exposure."

The cluster of more than 550 islands, of which only about three dozen are inhabited, are home to six tribes of Mongoloid and African origin who have lived there for thousands of years.

Many of these tribal people subsist by hunting with spears, bows and arrows, and by fishing and gathering fruit and roots. They still cover themselves with tree bark or leaves.

Fears over alcohol and tobacco

Many of the tribes have been gradually exposed to outside influences since colonial rule and their numbers have steadily dwindled over the same period, making many anthropologists pessimistic about their longer-term chances of survival.

"Moving them out from their natural habitats is certainly cause for concern. You wouldn't want them to be exposed to our culture," said Samir Acharya, who runs the Society for Andaman and Nicobar Ecology.

"I am sure they wouldn't be happy being brought out either, and the faster we return them to their homes, huts whatever, it's better."

Among the most exposed - and most threatened - are the Great Andamanese, who now number just 49.

Once a large and fierce tribe of around 10,000 people, the Great Andamanese were defeated in an 1859 battle against British forces, who conducted a series of punitive expeditions over the decades that followed.

Their numbers continued to fall from conflicts with Indian settlers, death and disease.

An army helicopter also rescued 17 tribal people stranded on the worst-hit Katchal island, which had been swamped with seawater, Lieutenant General BS Thakur told reporters.

Thakur said the Nicobarese, the largest tribal group in the island, had lived on bananas and coconuts since the December 26 tsunami, which killed more than 15,000 people in India.

Rescue teams have also reached the Onge on the devastated Little Andaman islands. Officials said the Onge, who are less than 100 in number, were housed in a special camp in a school on the island and were in good condition.

But there are fears the Onge could be mixing with other settlers in the relief camp and being exposed to alcohol and tobacco.

"They have remained isolated because they have made a choice. We shouldn't be trying to foist things on them," Acharya said.

Last week, the Sentinelese, the most isolated of all the tribes in the Andaman, greeted a military helicopter that flew low over the island with arrows and stones.

No comments have so far been submitted. Why not be the first to send us your thoughts, or debate this issue live on our message boards.

We are no longer accepting comments on this article.

Who is this week's top commenter? Find out now