for National Geographic News
Indian Ocean islanders who used ancient lore to escape last year's tsunami are facing a new threat that could extinguish their traditional way of life: modernization.
The Jarawa, thought to number less than 300, live on the isolated islands of Andaman and Nicobar in the Bay of Bengal. It was this coral island chain that took the brunt of the tsunami that traveled westward from Sumatra on December 26, 2004.
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More than 7,000 islanders perished in the disaster. But it is believed that the Jarawa, using tribal knowledge to read nature's warning signs, fled to high ground and saved themselves. The Jarawa "get wind of impending danger from biological warning signals, like the cry of birds and change in the behavioral patterns of marine animals," said V.R. Rao, director of the Anthropological Survey of India, based in Kolkata.
(Read the news feature about how the Jarawa escaped the tsunami.)
But as canny as the islanders are in the face of the forces of nature, they are seemingly powerless in the face of an even more insidious threat: encroaching modernization brought on by outsiders invading their territory.
The Jarawa still live mainly by hunting and gathering in the dense tropical rain forests of the islands. They are one of four Andaman tribesthe Great Andamanese, Onge, Jarawa, and Sentineleseknown as the Negrito tribes and are of African descent.
The Jarawa have had peaceful contact with the outside world since only a few decades ago. But pressure from settlers from the India subcontinent has gradually reduced tribal territory to the present 270-square-mile (700-square-kilometer) "Jarawa Reserve."
According to Survival International, a London based non-governmental organization, "these settlers are invading their land, stealing animals; plying them with alcohol and tobacco, sexually abusing Jarawa women, and using them as cheap labor in return for a few bananas."
The Indian government is making efforts to protect the tribe, which still uses bows and arrows for self-defense. Some experts feel the government action offers too little, too late.
Three months ago a hostile standoff erupted between settlers and Jarawas. According to Anup Kumar Mondal, tribal welfare officer of the Andaman Islands government, Jarawas raided the houses of settlers of the Forester Valley and took away clothes, household items, and silver jewelry. Armed police had to be called in to control the situation.
Samir Acharya, chief of the nonprofit Society for Andaman and Nicobar Ecology (SANE), in Port Blair, said the Jarawas were retaliating for a theft perpetrated by settlers.
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