Human safaris restarted in Andamans

Despite an international outcry over human safaris in the Andaman islands, an archipelago between India and Burma, the local administration has bowed to the high demand from tourists to allow them, once again, to visit the homelands of ethnic tribes.

Neither the outcry, nor a court ban has discouraged human safaris in the Jarawa reserve in the Andamans, and the tourist rush is still gathering pace, allegedly with the support of local authorities. The main attraction is the ethnic Jarawa tribe, and people are flocking to see its people, who rarely emerge from the lush forests. Each day, long convoys of vehicles and state-tourism operators, along with private tour operators, ply the Andaman Trunk Road that runs through the forests, in the hope of catching a glimpse of members of the Jarawa tribe.

The plight of the tribe was exposed by a recent media report that highlighted the exploitation of the Jarawa as a tourist novelty. The media report became a scandal, and international condemnation soon followed against the so-called Andaman human safaris. Each year, hoards of tourists visit the forest, which is the tribe’s last dwindling jungle reserve.

In response, the Indian government introduced laws punishing interference with the Jarawa, but even top officials have been caught bending the rules. In July, India’s supreme court banned commercial and tourist activity inside a five-kilometre buffer zone around the tribal reserve. However, tourism is still rampant in the area, condoned by the local authorities, and the Andaman and Nicobar administration even runs a special service for tourists, ostensibly to visit a limestone cave and mud volcano on Baratang island.

It is believed that at the height of the tourist season, there can be as many as 150 private tour vehicles on the first convoy of the day. The tourist season runs from September to May, and during that time an estimated 250 vehicles use the road each day, equating to 150,000 people a year. This intrusion, combined with the associated economic activities, is expected to lead to the extinction of the Jarawa’s culture and lifestyle.

According to anthropologists, the tribe has been in existence for tens of thousands of years, and are believed to have migrated from Africa. They have remained relatively unchanged because of their limited exposure to the outside world. Early settlers in the forests had to deal with violent attacks from the Jarawas, and even to this day they shun outside contact.

Environmental groups, including Survival International, have called for the closure of the Andaman Trunk Road because of fears that tourism will eventually destroy the tribe.