This is the image that everyone has of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Clear blue waters, white sandy beaches which transform into lush rainforests as you move onto the land.
The truth however is quite contrary.
There is very little of original, undisturbed, pristine rainforests left. The Andamans were the timber source for mainland India for many decades. In fact till recently, the largest saw-mill in Asia was operated out of there. People in mainland India were given incentives like 10 tons of wood every year to settle down in the Andamans and ‘colonize’ the islands. Burmese people even today come into the islands, cut down the tallest trees, tie them all together and toe them back to Myanmar.
Great Andamanese hunters, in an 1875 photograph (source commons)
The real tragedy has been with the local tribes. There were 6 different tribes in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. While a few of them (Jarawa, Sentinelese, Onge, Great Andamanese) are of Negroid origin, the others are Mongoloid (Shompen, Nicobarese) and have been living there for thousands of years and possibly represent a very critical link in human migration. The Andamans are theorized to be a key stepping stone in a great coastal migration of humans from Africa via the Arabian peninsula, along the coastal regions of the Indian mainland and towards Southeast Asia, Japan and Oceania. First, the European and Central Asian sailors tried to make slaves out of them. This made them wary of the outside world and have always treated outsiders with hostility. Then the British moved into these islands and tried to make contact with them. This contact led to spread of diseases and also alcoholism and other bane of the modern society. History repeated itself, and like the Amazon and Mayan tribes, the populations of these tribes also plummeted.
Great Andamanese who’s population used to be 5000+, plummeted to 600 by 1901. Today less than 30 of them survive. Jarawas which were also in few thousands have dropped to 300 and restricted to a small part of their former territory – the Jarawa Reserve in the west coast of the South and Middle Andamans. There is a main highway going through their reserve which has become the source of contact and interactions between these tribes and the settlers. The settlers being mostly people from West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Ranchi. Even though there is a Supreme Court order to shut down the road, it is still operational.
Onge which live in Little Andaman have less than a 100 people left. The only tribe which still maintains no contact with the outside world are are the Sentinelese. There are an estimated 300 left on the North Sentinel Island.
Just last month, one of the sub-tribes of Andamanese became extinct when the last of its member passed away.
Tsunami has transformed the islands and left its scar forever. There is life before the Tsunami and then there is the life after.
There was a lot of lives lost and a lot of damage to the property. The real damage came not from the wave of water but from the earthquakes that shook the islands during that time. The islands got tilted and land got submerged into waters or got lifted up. A lot of coral reefs died because they were lifted by a few feet. The little change in depth can change the temperature and that led to the mass dying of the corals. Some even got lifted above the sea level. A lot of fertile land got submerged and now they are just marshes with submerged and abandoned houses in between and a lot of palm trees without their crowns.
Dead corals that were pushed above the water by the earthquake
The Tsunami also changed the social landscape of the islands. The government lifted the ban on logging and opened up the rainforests to support the people. A lot of money that was pumped into the relief efforts has changed the economic balance of the island people. Everyone owns a badly built fishing boat that were presented to them post-tsunami. Now most of them are broken down because of the bad quality and whats left are used for tourism purposes. There has been a boom in tourism too. These obscure islands became popular. All the money that came in as relief were quickly converted to resorts.
This was the first time I’ve experienced ‘island ecosystem’. Basically, these islands have been remote for so long that, no mammals have reached here. Every time I heard something, I would look in the understory to look out for some deer etc.. but then realise that there are no mammals in these islands and the sound was either another person or a stray dog. The real diversity of these islands is in the plants, reptiles and birds. Most birds here are endemic and are relatives of the mainland birds like the Andaman Serpent Eagle, Andaman Coucal, Andaman Teal, Andaman something or the other! The same story goes with the snakes and lizards too. One of the extraordinary reptile here is the Andaman Day Gecko Phelsuma
Andaman Day Gecko
Unlike regular geckos, this one is diurnal, very colourful and you are almost sure to find one on every areca (betel nut) tree if you look carefully. They are most active during mid day when they come out to catch flies that land on the inflorescence of these plants.
Andaman Crake – One of the many endemic birds
Olive Ridley Turtle nesting on the Ramnagar beach
Heritiera littoralis seed
My favorite is this mangrove plant whose boat-shaped seed has a small ‘keel’ or sail on top to help it disperse across the open oceans riding the waves. Were these the inspiration when humans first made the sail boats ?
The other highlight was the Edible-nest swiftlets for which I’ll write a separate post.