LONDON – Human safaris to see the Jarawa tribe of the Andaman Islands have finally come to an end as the authorities there bow to domestic and international pressure.
For the first time in a generation, members of the tribe are able to wander through their jungle safe from the prying eyes of the tens of thousands of tourists who travel to the islands in the Bay of Bengal every year to view them.
India’s Supreme Court last week ordered an end to the safaris that had scandalized the country and caused outrage around the world after they were exposed by The Observer in January 2012.
Activists fighting to protect the reclusive Jarawa are hailing a ground-breaking victory. “We see this decision an important victory in the campaign to stop the ‘human safaris’ around the world,” said Survival International campaigner Sophie Grig.
“It will stop the Jarawa being treated like animals in a zoo,” she added.
But, despite the celebrations, activists are still wary about the intentions of the Andaman authorities, who have fought tooth and claw against the ban. The supreme court has asked them to indicate whether they believe the tribe should remain in isolation or be assimilated, and have set Feb. 26 as the date for another hearing.
“This is a very dangerous question, as it implies that this decision should rest with the authorities rather than with the Jarawa themselves,” said Grig.
“History has shown that pushing tribal people into the mainstream robs them of their self-sufficiency and pride and leaves them struggling at the edges of society — diseases, suicides and addictions soar. This is not a future anyone wants for the Jarawa. They must be allowed to control the amount, and type, of contact they have with outsiders, and to choose what, if any, changes they make to their way of life.”
The beginning of the end for the human safaris came last Monday, when two judges sitting at the supreme court in Delhi gave short shrift to attempts by the island’s administration to keep the road open to tourists. “There is a total ban in the area,” the bench ruled.
There are only about 400 members of the Jarawa tribe left in the thick jungles in the northern part of South Andaman island. Until about 15 years ago there was little contact between members of the tribe and Indian settlers, but the construction of the Andaman trunk road through the heart of the jungle in the 1980s had made it inevitable that the two groups would be brought into ever closer proximity.
The road connects the capital, Port Blair, with Middle Andaman and North Andaman islands, and settlers argue that it is needed to carry essential supplies and to allow those living on the far side of the Jarawa reserve to be able to access medical services in the capital.
Opponents argue that the road brings the general population into unwanted contact with the Jarawa every day and should be closed. They claim that it has resulted in the Jarawa tribe being exposed to diseases against which they have no natural protection.
But by far the biggest problem created by the road was the access it provided to tourists — mostly Indian nationals — determined to catch a glimpse of the Jarawa.
The daily convoys, ostensibly to see a limestone cave and mud volcano on Baratang island, quickly became known as human safaris.
In 2002 the supreme court ordered the closure of the road, but the island authorities refused to comply, despite repeated requests to do so from the United Nations commission on the human rights of indigenous peoples.
In January 2012, The Observer published an investigation into the involvement of the authorities in the human safaris, accompanied by a video that was circulating on the islands, showing semi-naked women and children from the tribe being coerced into dancing for the amusement of tourists.
The publication caused consternation in India, with the government promising to bring an end to the safaris. India’s tribal affairs minister Kishore Chandra Deo condemned the practice as “disgraceful” and called for exemplary punishment for those involved.