A recent DNA study reports that the Onge
tribals, who live in the Little Andaman islands, Bay of Bengal are the descendants of the
ancient migrant group that first stepped out of Africa. Fascinating history...isnt
it? But even as the anthropologists dig up their past, the present as well as the future
of these people seem bleaker than ever.
of the onges
Want to know why? Then listen to tale of the Onges. The ancestors of the Onges took the
sea route from east Africa towards the Indian sub-continent. But then got isolated on the
islands about 60,000 70, 000 years ago. Their people have lived there since. But
they obviously have not thrived. At the beginning of the 20th century, 672 Onges dwelt in
the Little Andamans. Today the number has shrunk to a chilling 98.
The decline of the Onges seem to keep pace with the decline of the forests that they
live in. Yes, Onges are dying because their lives are firmly linked with their habitat
and like tigers, they cannot survive without the forests!
Why the Onges matter
Onges are a hunting and food gathering tribe who live on the island of Little Andaman, in
the Bay of Bengal. The 700 odd square kilometre island has a sandy coastline that blends
with thick forest inland. The island is criss-crossed by small streams, networked with
creeks, has swamps and marshes that nurture the mangroves. The interiors of the island
have vast deciduous and tropical rainforests.
About fifty years ago, Onges were scattered all over the island. They ate pigs,
turtles, dugongs, crabs, fish, honey, plants, wild nuts, fruits and tubers. Onges never
stored food for future consumption. Food that was hunted, was eaten and shared among all.
It was an unwritten law that young boars would not be
felled. Only the flesh of older animals would be eaten. The Onges lived in harmony with
all living things. They abided the laws of the forests,
Today, the Onges are confined to the two main areas of Dugong Creek and South Bay.
Their natural resource base is now limited to 76 square kilometres.
The decline began in the 1960s and 70s, when the island was opened to outsiders.
The Indian government brought in Bangladeshi refugees and Tamilian and Bengali
repatriates. Large tracts of the forest cover were cleared to find space for them. The
territory of the Onges was invaded.
The tribals now live with an alien population almost 30 times their number. Their food
habits have changed. They now cook and eat rice, flour and vegetables. Their lifestyle has
changed drastically. But this exposure to the world outside has obviously not
suited the Onges. They are a dying race.
So what will save the Onges?
The Onges cannot be saved if the forests are not protected. Also, the biodiversity of the
island cannot be preserved if the Onges cease to exist. Can we allow it to happen?
Shouldnt the Onges along with other severely-endangered tribal groups be given some
kind of legal right over their homeland and their natural resources? So that both humans
and the forests can survive! Think about it and tell us.