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TSUNAMI IMPACT: Andaman Tribes Have Lessons to Teach Survivors

Ranjit Devraj

NEW DELHI, Jan 6 2005 (IPS) - Stone age tribes living on India’s remote Andaman and Nicobar islands not only survived the devastating Dec. 26 tsunami – triggered by an undersea quake whose epicenter was closest to their homelands – but may actually have a few lessons in reading natural early warning systems for their less perceptive Asian neighbours, say scientists.

While close to 150,000 people have been confirmed dead on the coasts of a dozen countries around the Bay of Bengal after being caught unaware by giant killer waves, the Onges, Jarawas, Sentinalese, and Great Andamanese, who live in the archipelago escaped unscathed because they took to the forests and higher ground well in time.

”These tribes live close to nature and are known to heed biological warning signs like changes in the cries of birds and the behaviour patterns of land and marine animals,” V. Raghavendra Rao, Director of the Kolkatta-based Anthropological Survey of India (ASI) told IPS in a phone interrview.

Based on reports from his field staff on the badly devastated archipelago of 550 islands, strung out between Burma’s main port of Rangoon and Indonesia’s Sumatra island, Rao confirmed to IPS that there were no known casualties among the five tribes – although there are unconfirmed reports of a few missing Onges.

The Andaman and Nicobar islands have a population of around 500,000 people of which the tribals form less than 30,000. Of the tribals, the biggest group is the Nicobarese at around 20,000.

Rao and other ASI experts believe that the tribes may hold the key to building a resource base for a reliable and cost-effective coastal warning system against future catastrophes.

Experts around the world have blamed the unusually high human toll from the tsunami, which was spawned by a huge undersea quake in the northern tip of Sumatra island, on the absence of a reliable early warning system such as the sophisticated Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre based in Honolulu, Hawaii.

But top Indian scientists think that such a system may not be practical for the countries of the Indian Ocean where tsunamis are extremely rare.

”Building up a tsunami prediction network for the Indian Ocean will be a gigantic effort – after all we cannot build shelters against 25-foot (7.62 meters) high waves to cover hundreds of kilometers of coastline,” said S.Z. Qasim, India’s best-known oceanographer and vice-chairman of the Society for Indian Ocean Studies.

”As soon as things settle down we are planning to document the vast and valuable indigenous, intangible knowledge and survival skills that exist on the islands – not only on impending catastrophes but also on herbs and medicinal plants,” Rao, one of the few Indian officials authorised to speak on the subject said.

”Immediate documentation is important because we also need to record how the tribes that live by hunting and foraging adapt to the major geomorphological changes wrought to their habitat on the islands by the Dec. 26 events,” he added.

These tribes have origins reaching into Mesolithic and Upper Paleolithic era (between 20,000 and 60,000 years old) and efforts at scientifically studying their unique genetic characteristic have been made in collaboration with the Hyderabad-based Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB).

DNA studies carried out by the CCMB have shown the Onges who inhabit reservations on Dugong Creek and the South Bay of Little Andaman Island to be the most primitive of the tribes and closely related to African pygmies. That also makes them the most endangered, with fewer than a 100 individuals now known to exist, partly as a result of catching diseases like hepatitis from contact with outsiders that began under British colonial rule in 1886.

Another Negrito group, the Jarawas on Great Andaman island suffered not only as result of diseases introduced by outsiders but also because of punitive expeditions carried out by the British and the Japanese who occupied the islands and built bunkers and fortifications on them during World War II.

Since the construction of the Andaman Truck road connecting the administrative centre of Port Blair with Diglipur, on Great Andaman, the Jarawas have been increasingly coming into contact with Indian settlers who originally came to build the road but then stayed on as encroachers.

The Sentinalese, who are believed to be originally an offshoot of the Onges live on North Sentinel island west of South Andaman and are probably the last of the world’s Paleolithic people that have no contact with the rest of the world because the island is completely out of bounds to outsiders.

Scientists believe that because of the extreme isolation of the Sentinalese, this tribe has become biomedically valuable. They warn that these tribespeople, in the future, could be targeted by bio-prospectors for valuable genetic traits that may have long ago vanished in other ethnic or racial groups.

Confirmation of their safety came from the Indian coast guard which carried out surveys over the 60 square kilometer Sentinel island last week on low-flying helicopters which were greeted with arrows and spears by the hostile Sentinalese.

The director general of the coast guard, Vice-Admiral A.K. Singh, said on Monday that he was relieved to see the hostility because it was sure sign that the Sentinalese were fighting fit and not interested in receiving outside help following the tsunami. He had pictures of Sentinalese aiming arrows at his chopper to prove the point.

Apart from the four Negrito groups, the southern part of the archipelago (Nicobar group) is home to tribes of Mongoloid origin like the reclusive Shompens numbering 300 and the more sophisticated, Nicobarese who may have migrated from Indonesia’s Sumatra island nearby.

Most of the tribal victims of the tsunami were Nicobarese and as many as a quarter of their population of 20,000 people, who are mostly coastal farmers and followers of the Christian faith, may have perished when the killer waves struck.

Following the Dec. 26 tsunami Indian authorities have refused permission for international volunteer agencies seeking to go beyond Port Blair to carry out relief work on the grounds that they do not want the aborigines to be disturbed in any way.

Besides the need to protect the aborigines, the Andaman and Nicobar islands bristles with defence installations and has since 2001 supported a joint-service command involving elements of the army, navy air force and coast guard under a single commander.

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