Unlike the rest of India, tribal rights and conservation are not at the opposite ends of the spectrum in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Yet, there are challenges.

In a national scenario where wildlife conservation and tribal rights have ended up at the extreme ends of an acrimonious spectrum, the situation in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands stands out in stark relief. We have here a situation where the protection of the indigenous peoples, the forests and the islands' biodiversity including its rich bird life are all intricately linked. Evidence suggests, in fact, that forests protected legally in the islands as tribal reserves are more important for wildlife and biodiversity conservation than the protected area network created under the provisions of the Wildlife Protection Act.

Wildlife conservation

The islands have 105 protected areas (wildlife sanctuaries and national parks) which constitute a significant percentage of the all India number of a little over 600. Yet, it has been argued that they don't actually play an important ecological role in the islands. Most of these protected areas (PAs) are tiny islands and rocky outcrops that sometimes have an area of as little as a few hectares. The largest forest area protected for wildlife in the Andamans, for instance, is the 133 sq km Interview Island Wildlife Sanctuary. Importantly, this island experienced intense and sustained timber extraction operations till about the middle of the 1960s. Compare this with the 1,000 sq km Jarawa Tribal Reserve that is spread over three large islands (South, Middle and North Andaman) and the implications are obvious. That a significant part of this tribal reserve has never been subject to any timber extraction operations underlines the importance of the reserve from an ecological and biodiversity point of view.

That the islands are important for bird conservation here is evident in the fact that 19 areas have been identified here as Important Bird Areas under a programme coordinated by the Bombay Natural History Society. Significantly, six of the 19 IBAs are those areas that are designated as tribal reserves. These include the islands of Car Nicobar, Great Nicobar, Little Nicobar, Tillangchong, Camorta, Katchal, Nancowry and Trinkat, all in the Nicobar Islands (they have been together classified into three different IBAs) and the Jarawa Reserve, Little Andaman, and North and South Sentinel in the Andaman group of islands.

Tribal reserves

At the heart of the story, then, is the Andaman and Nicobar Protection of Aboriginal Tribes Regulation (ANPATR) that was created in 1956 and under whose provisions large areas of forests and adjoining seas have been designated as tribal reserves. This includes the entire group of the Nicobar Islands (about 1,900 sq km) and four tribal reserves in the Andaman Islands (nearly 1,600 sq km). The Andaman reserves are named after the four aboriginal negrito communities that have been living in these islands for at least 40,000 years: the Great Andamanese, the Jarawas, the Onge and the Sentinelese. These reserves, then, are not just critical to ensure the natural resource base and cultural security of these tribal communities, they are central also to the ecological security of this unique group of islands. Research over the years by a host of organisations including the A&N Forest Department, the Zoological and Botanical Surveys of India, the Andaman and Nicobar Environment Team and the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History has shown that these tribal reserves have some of the most pristine mangroves, coastal systems, turtle nesting beaches, tropical evergreen forests and a number of other important habitats that still survive in these islands.

Conservation challenges

The challenges, however, are more complex than they appear at first. One of the biggest has been the large influx of people from mainland India. The population in the islands has grown six fold from about 60,000 in 1960 to an estimated 3,80,000 today as per 2011 census. The population of the indigenous communities on the other hand (Onges – 100 and the Jarawas – 375) is extremely small and has remained steady over the many decades. The situation clearly demands careful intervention. One such framework was provided by the orders of the Supreme Court, which were passed in 2002 in response to a public interest litigation filed by non-governmental organisations. The court had asked for putting in place an inner line area system to prevent the influx of people, stopping commercial timber extraction, removal of encroachments, phasing out of sand mining from the island's beaches, use of appropriate construction materials, closure of the Andaman and Nicobar Forest Plantation and Development Corporation that had been logging the forests of Little and Middle Andaman since the 1970s; and closure of the Andaman Trunk Road (ATR) where it runs through and along the forests in the Jarawa Reserve.

Nearly a decade later, many of these orders have not been implemented. The population influx continues, little effort has been made to move to more island-friendly methods of construction and the ATR still remains open to traffic. The Member of Parliament for the islands recently even argued for the mainstreaming of the Jarawa and for the denotification of the Jarawa Tribal Reserve so that the land and forests could be made available for development.

Other new challenges are also showing up on the canvas. In October 2011, the National Board for Wildlife was asked to give permission to the Indian Navy to set up a temporary missile testing site on the Tillangchong Island in the Nicobar group. A decision on this is still awaited but here is a classic illustration of what this article is all about. Tillangchong Island is a wildlife sanctuary and an Important Bird Area with important populations of the endemic Nicobar Megapode. It is a tribal reserve under the provisions of the ANPATR and is also of traditional cultural and religious importance to the Nicobari tribal community. The challenges and the opportunities are as clear as they can be!

Pankaj Sekhsaria is a member of the environmental organisation Kalpavriksh.

The entire Nicobar islands is a tribal reserve and is key for the survival of a number of species of rare and endemic flora and fauna.