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Tribal People – On The Verge Of Extinction?

The earth is shaking, as the tree falls with a great thud,’ sings Boa Senior, the last member of the 65,000-year-old Bo tribe of the Andaman Islands. You can still hear her words – but only on the website of charity Survival International. She died in 2010, aged 85. Her song lives on. Her tribe does not. Ethnic groups such as the Bo disappear for many reasons. Back in the day it was often old-fashioned colonial oppression. Today, threats are subtler, more insidious, and yet still deadly. Some peoples, who have had no contact with the modern world, are undone by disease. Others have had the catastrophic bad luck to live on history’s faultlines. Many are devastated in the cause of economic progress.

As Yvonne Bangert, spokesperson for the Indigenous Peoples Department of the Society of Threatened Peoples, says: “Indigenous peoples live close to nature. Their way of life needs intact ecosystems. But gold, uranium, oil and gas are often found in their territories. The mining of these and other resources, the illegal cutting down of trees or damming of rivers endanger their traditional ways of life. Mine workers often introduce alcoholism and/or prostitution. The introduction of monocultures destroy forests on which many indigenous people depend. Land grabs by poor landless people or agro-industry pose another risk.” The plight of many endangered peoples is, at least, being publicised via the internet’s sprawling reach. But these ten nationalities may yet follow the Bo into extinction.



The victims of greed and genocide, the Akuntsu is one indigenous people whose extinction is virtually inevitable. Until the 1980s, hundreds of Akuntsu lived in comfortable obscurity in Rondonia, north-west Brazil, hunting and growing crops in their small gardens. Then the region was opened up for development. The Brazilian constitution protects the land of uncontacted tribes so some ranchers and loggers decided the best way to exploit Rondonia’s verdant wilderness – and circumvent red tape – was to massacre the Akuntsu. After one incident around 1990, in which scores of Akuntsu were killed, only seven of the tribe remained. The terrified survivors retreated deeper into the forest. There are now only five Akuntsu left, albeit in a protected area. As tribal custom doesn’t allow outsiders to marry in, the Akuntsu seem doomed.

Dawn breaks over a Jarawa settlement in the Andaman Islands
Dawn breaks over a Jarawa settlement in the Andaman Islands

YUKAGIR, Siberia


One of north-east Asia’s oldest peoples, the Yukagir once hunted across a vast territory stretching from the North Pole to Lake Baikal. Today, they live in a handful of communities in the basin of Siberia’s Kolyma River. In some ways, their lifestyle hasn’t changed radically – they still hunt and fish when they can – but in other ways it has. They now speak Russian (in 2006, UNESCO estimated, only 17 Yukagir spoke their own language fluently); their faith combines shamanism with Russian Orthodox Christianity; and the land they live off has been exploited, polluted and seized by businesses and officials who have twisted the laws of perestroika and privatisation to suit their interests. In one settlement, where unemployment is around 80%, locals are too poor to buy the equipment they need to hunt and fish properly. The average lifespan for a Yukagir man is just 45 years. The Yukagir’s sufferings started in the 17th century when the Russians arrived, imposing their kind of law and order, partly by taking hostages. By 1780, one in ten Yukagir women of marriageable age lived with a Russian. Under Stalin, the process of Russification was so devastating that some families can no longer tell if they are Yukagir at all.

JARAWA, Andaman Islands, India


In the Andaman Aka-Bea language, Jarawa means stranger’. One of four peoples native to the Andaman Islands, the Jarawa were strangers to the modern world until 1998. They still hunt and fish and, after two measles epidemics, mainly prefer their secluded reservation in the primordial rainforest. Sadly, tourists and poachers won’t let the Jarawa be. The Indian Supreme Court has ordered the closure of the Great Andaman Trunk Road, which runs through the reservation and is used by many tourists who pay to photograph the tribe. Local administrators ignored the verdict but are becoming more vigilant after a video showing semi-naked Jarawa being ordered to dance for Western tourists surfaced on YouTube. Some experts say isolating the Jarawa is patronising, racist and destructive, preventing them from changing their lifestyle. Others fear change would be fatal.



This race of fishermen, which settled on the eastern Baltic seaboard 4,000 years ago, call themselves raandalist – coast dwellers. But, after centuries of war and forced assimilation, their heartland has shrunk to a dozen Latvian coastal villages; Mazirbe, their cultural capital, has a population of just 147.  As bleak as this sounds, Liv culture is finally free from Soviet persecution – the Livonian coast is officially protected by the Latvian government. Claims that the last native speaker of Liv had died in 2009 proved premature, with five native speakers unearthed across three continents. The language, which some young Latvians study because they think it’s hip, is taught at universities in Estonia, Finland and Latvia. Community leaders fear Liv may flourish online rather than as a living language, but are more optimistic about their race’s survival now than in the 1980s.

NUKAK, Colombia


The Nukak are one of at least 32 indigenous peoples in Colombia that the UN has identified as at risk of imminent extinction. Armed colonists, growing cocoa for the cocaine trade, and military conflict between rebels and government have turned the southern Colombian rainforest where the Nukak once roamed into a treacherous place. Hundreds of Nukak now live in refugee camps with many younger members desperate to jettison their traditional lifestyle. But assimilation could be fatal for a people whose immune systems can barely handle the common cold. Survival International estimates that 50% of the Nukak have died since the tribe first came into regular contact with the outside world in 1988. Yet returning to their ancestral home won’t be easy. Civil war still rages near the Cano Grande and the Nukak’s nomadic lifestyle has prompted the Marxist-Leninist FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) to suspect them of being government informants.

Threatened by drug cartels, guerrillas and a lack of natural immunity, this Nukak woman now resides in a refugee settlement close to San Jose del Guaviare
Threatened by drug cartels, guerrillas and a lack of natural immunity, this Nukak woman now resides in a refugee settlement close to San Jose del Guaviare



Nobody really knows where the El Molo come from, but the last remnants of Kenya’s smallest ethnic group are clustered together on the south-eastern shore of Lake Turkana. After years of conflict with other ethnic groups, they keep themselves to themselves. Fishing for the large Nile perch defines their lives – el molo is a Maasai term for those who make their living from other than cattle’ – but Lake Turkana is slowly evaporating and increasingly polluted, causing recurrent cholera outbreaks. The WildiZe African Conservation Foundation is raising hinds to improve the water supply. But w’ater isn’t the only challenge. Children are taught English in schools and only a few elders speak their native language (most use Maa or Swahili). But tourism – especially the purchase of native arts and crafts – is bringing the El Molo a little economic stability.

TAO, Taiwan


The smallest of Taiwan’s ten officially recognised aboriginal peoples, the Tao migrated to Lanyu (Orchid Island) 800 years ago. In 1978, community leaders supported a new factory on the island only to belatedly discover the facility was a plant to reprocess all Taiwan’s nuclear waste. The Tao have, as their petition to the United Nations said, ‘been tricked into shouldering the immense risk of a nuclear disaster’. The campaign against nuclear waste has galvanised many Tao but can’t obscure the divisions that may yet destroy them. Their traditional calendar revolves around the ocean – especially the economically vital season when they catch flying fish – but since 1990, as many as one in four Tao have left for the mainland, embracing Taiwan’s mainstream Chinese culture. This migration, combined with an influx of Taiwanese mainlanders, and the ambiguous legacy of a tourist boom, mean that, even if nuclear disaster is averted, this people’s future is far from secure.

INUGHUIT, Greenland


Living in one of the most inhospitable, precarious environments on earth, the lnughuit are part of – but have a distinctive sub-culture from – the limit. Spread across four settlements in northwest Greenland, these hunter-gatherers have no written language and, as the ice they rely on shrinks, they fear they are being squeezed out of existence. Greenland’s autonomous government is -many lnughuit believe – doing some of the squeezing by imposing drastic hunting quotas, compelling the lnughuit to move to new urban centres to save money. Such suspicion is understandable: in 1953,250 lnughuit were given just days to leave the town of Dundas so the US could build an airbase there; 15 years later, a B-52 carrying four hydrogen bombs crashed nearby. Only three bombs were ever recovered and the high levels of mercury in the regions marine mammals are a health hazard. With global warming redesigning the regions climate, the traditional lnughuit way of life is literally melting away. As one woman told British anthropologist Stephen Pax Leonard, who visited the area in 2010, “If the sea ice goes completely, our culture will disappear”.

Batak dancers on Samosir Island
Batak dancers on Samosir Island

S’AOCH, Cambodia


Under the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal rule, the S’aoch were executed just for speaking their native language. In the violent turmoil that afflicted Cambodia in the late 1970s, the S’aoch lost their coastal homeland and now live in Samrong Loeu, a village in south-west Cambodia where only ten elders still speak the language. In the 19th century, a Thai admiral kidnapped many Saoch for slavery. After this extensive trade, elders say, only three Saoch families remained in their homeland. French linguist Jean-Michel Filippi hopes to preserve the language (one of 19 threatened with extinction in Cambodia). But many Saoch, impoverished because they have no fields to work in, are abandoning traditional customs to speak Khmer, the tongue of their wealthy neighbours.

BATAK, Philippines


Fifty thousand years ago, the Batak crossed land bridges to the Philippines and settled in northern Palawan to hunt, farm and fish. In the kind of deadly paradox that afflicts many indigenous peoples, the Batak’s ancestral landscape is threatened by land seizure and indiscriminate logging while their traditional shifting cultivation method has been partially banned and threatened by protected areas’ created to safeguard the environment. The Batak’s immediate need is simple: food. However, rice yields have plummeted precariously since 1994, when their farming fell foul of government legislation. Suffering from low birth rates, high infant mortality and severe malnourishment, the Batak may only survive if they win legal rights to live on their lands in their traditional way. Even if government policy changes, many young Bataks already feel compelled to marry outside the tribe.

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