Last of the onges
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...isn’t it? But even as the anthropologists dig up their past, the present as well as the future of these people seem bleaker than ever.
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 subcontinent. 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 arshes 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? Shouldn’t 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.