Island tribes survive tsunami

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WASHINGTON - The deadliest natural disaster on record didn't leave island
tribes in the Bay of Bengal untouched, but neither did it destroy them.

Early reports from the Andaman and Nicobar island chains raised fears that
entire tribes may have been wiped out by the Dec. 26, 2004, tsunami that
struck 13 coastal nations around the Indian Ocean. The low-riding tidal
wave, spawned by an underwater earthquake off the large island of Sumatra,
left at least 130,000 dead by the latest count. A large number of missing
persons have yet to be counted among the dead.

Reports have been filed on the indigenous islanders by Reuters News Agency,
The Washington Post newspaper, and Agence-France Press. The sum of their
reporting is that some of the tribes on the islands have been displaced and
may be in need of medical assistance and supplies. But on the whole the
tribes escaped devastation because they dwell in inland jungles, away from
the coasts.

Only a few dozen of 550 islands in the archipelago are inhabited. The
population of the islands is estimated at 350,000. Of that figure, the
tribal population makes up just under 10 percent, or about 30,000. The
largest tribe, the Nicobarese on Car Nicobar and neighbor islands, took the
worst pounding of the waves according to available information, but no
death toll has been announced. But the Shompen, 250 people in a community
on the coasts of the Great Nicobar islands, were closest to the
earthquake's epicenter. At the time of the first reports from the islands,
they had not been traced, though an official spokesman in India denied that
any of the tribes had been decimated. The Jarawa, Onge and Sentinelese
tribes number only in the hundreds, and the Great Andamanese only in the
dozens, leading to initial fears that entire populations could number among
the estimated 6,000 dead in the island chain.

Among these half-dozen tribes are some of the last surviving Paleolithic
cultures. Most are semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers.

The Andaman and Nicobar archipelago is a possession of India, about 900
miles to the west. The government of India has installed tracking stations
on the islands to monitor shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean. Most of these
coastal installations were destroyed by the tsunami. Because of the
geopolitical sensitivity of the islands to India, the singular geography of
the islands and the tribes' wariness of outsiders - even citizens of India
must obtain permits to visit the islands - the government has been slow to
admit outside assistance, preferring to deal with the islands' needs
internally.

But the director of India's coast guard, engaged in tsunami-related rescue
operations, told Reuters the tribes have not been wiped out. He said the
Sentinelese, known for hostility to strangers, threw rocks at a helicopter
that had dropped food supplies.