Hi, chums! In November 1991, a Crocodile Bank researcher Ms. Manjula Tiwari embarked on a six-month survey of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The study and survey was a pilot project to accumulate baseline data for initiating a longer term (five year) study program for the conservation and management of Sea Turtles that use these islands for nesting. The project was supported by the non-profit, Madras Crocodile Bank.
“As the ship pulled into the port at Campbell Bay, on the Great Nicobar Island on the fourth evening of the journey, I sat up on deck watching the large crowd on the dock. An overwhelming sense of loneliness filled me - I didn’t know a single face in the crowd, no one was expecting me, I had no idea where I would spend the night, or how I would survey the southern group of Islands in the Nicobars… But I underestimated the people of the islands… I found friends, and surrogate family that worried every time I left Campbell Bay on another survey, and I found Ratnam, my very first field assistant.
Ratnam – the field assistant holding a sea turtle in his hands
Ratnam agreed to help me survey the beaches for any amount of money that I thought was suitable for his help - he didn’t really seem to care about how much he would get paid. He was not a local tribal. He originated from the Indian mainland. Apparently, he had wanted to attend school, but his father had insisted he work in the fields belonging to the family. So, the angry Ratnam caught the first ship leaving the mainland coast and ended up in the Nicobars! I couldn’t have found a better assistant - he knew the islands and he knew many of the Nicobarese who lived along the coast, making it very easy to find floor space in some Nicobari hut to cook and sleep every evening.
I would describe Ratnam as “petite” but very strong. He called me “Madam” from the beginning and insisted on carrying my backpack even when we waded across deep creeks and most of him was underwater - I remember seeing just the top of his head and two arms straight up in the air holding my backpack above the water as he crossed the creek ahead of me. Even though we lived in very primitive conditions during these surveys, he always insisted on giving me the best of what was available.
One night, our only choices for sleeping were the forest floor and a 50-cm wide plank about 2 m off the ground. “Madam” was graciously offered the plank while Ratnam slept below. I got little sleep not because I had to lie still and flat on my back all night, but because I worried I might roll over and fall from 2 m on my kind and “petite” field assistant who slept below…
I have no idea where he is now, but I always remember him fondly…
Prologue: I had read somewhere that many early travelers avoided the Andaman and Nicobar Islands because they believed the inhabitants were cannibals. Surely, I said to myself as I hurriedly packed to catch the ship leaving for the Islands, this is an outdated view…
I had been told to hire Pau Aong, a Karen (tribe of Burmese origin) and a fine boatman, who would help survey the many islands of the Andaman archipelago. It was a long bus-boat-bus trip from Port Blair to his settlement in the North Andaman. Soon the bus arrived at the start of the Jarawa reserve - one of the very primitive tribes in the Andamans feared for their hostility. Two armed policemen boarded the bus and we were asked to shut our windows because the Jarawas may throw spears at us. The Jarawa reserve is sandwiched between two modern towns and locals in the bus told me stories about how the Jarawas had recently dragged someone off into the forest and probably eaten him.
Apparently, the Jarawas occasionally wandered into town and abducted people - the locals suspected that these abducted people were eaten because they were never seen again. After these extraordinary stories, I eagerly looked out of the bus, hoping to catch a glimpse of these people, but no such luck.... others have had more interesting encounters, and issues associated with the tribe continue…
Moving south from the Andamans to survey beaches in the Nicobar archipelago, I often stayed the night at some Nicobari tribal hut on the beach. This provided an opportunity to learn about the lives and world of this peaceful, coastal-dwelling tribe. One time after walking all day on the beach, we arrived at a little Nicobarese tribal village towards early evening. Immediately we were invited into one of the huts and offered hot, refreshing tea.
A lot of people were sitting around the hut looking very glum. On inquiring why everyone was so uncharacteristically gloomy, I was informed that earlier that morning, a boat with strangers had stopped at their beach and one of the village men had accompanied them to a settlement further down the coast. He had still not returned and everyone was very anxious. I was surprised that they had let him go with strangers because in my experience, the Nicobarese would often abandon their huts and run off into the forest when an unknown boat arrived at any of these small, remote, coastal villages.
Finally, as the gloom deepened, one of his despairing relatives asked me in great earnestness, "Do you think the men in the boat have eaten him?" (We later encountered the missing man at another village quite alive and intact. He was just enjoying a few extra days away from home…)
Certainly, this was a very different world from the one I had grown up in...”