Curiosity overcame fear, and I stealthily approached. The huge gray “snake” submerged and dove right underneath my kayak. I looked through the azure-blue water and spotted the silhouette of the full animal below—an adult Indian elephant! The elephant moved its 12,000-pound bulk forward in slow-motion with surprisingly graceful, gliding strokes, its eyes open underneath the sea. Its tusks and trunk broke the surface of the water as its enormous head emerged.
After paddling back to shore, I learned from the locals that this was Rajan, the last of the swimming elephants on the Andaman Islands. They told us that he was born in the 1950s in India, and brought to the islands to work in the logging industry. The large pachyderm was made to swim between islands transporting timber used for construction in the capital of Port Blair.
Two years before this encounter, in 2002, logging was banned in the Andamans and most elephants were brought back to the mainland. A few, including Rajan, remained behind. Rajan was left there because of his lost love, as the story goes. In his early years as a working elephant, Rajan had met a female elephant who taught him how to dive. Both elephants would walk side by side into the ocean each evening to play in the warm waters. She remained by his side for 20 years, until she died from a cobra bite, leaving Rajan heartbroken.
After our visit, Rajan was adopted by a local resort, where he lived until his death, swimming and roaming the forests. The elephant enthralled filmmakers and photographers, who came from around the world to see this seagoing pachyderm in action. Rajan, the last of the world’s swimming elephants, passed away in 2016. Today, his body lies deep below the jungle floor, where he lays undisturbed after 66 years of a truly unconventional life.
It was ten years before Rajan’s death that I was leading a small group of exploratory kayakers to the remote Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean. These islands form an archipelago in the Bay of Bengal between India and Myanmar and are under Indian sovereignty.Apart from a swimming, heartsick elephant, the islands are home to the Andamanese, a group of indigenous people that includes tribes such as the Jarawa and Sentinelese. They originally came from Africa 17,000 years ago, and are related to the pygmy hunter-gatherers in Botswana. Historically, these indigenous people lost most of their territory and numbers in the face of punitive expeditions by British troops, land encroachment and various epidemic diseases.
Only approximately 400–450 indigenous Andamanese remain. They are fiercely independent and have held steadfast to their cultural traditions, refusing most attempts at contact from the outside world. The Jarawas, in particular, are renowned for their resistance—they are generally hostile towards visitors and have therefore had little contact with any other people. These islanders have an ancient connection to the sea—anthropologists have long marveled at the way they catch large sperms whales from open paddle boats, using only spears and tenacity.
While some of the islands can be visited with permits, others, like North Sentinel Island, are banned for entry by the Indian government, protecting the natives who live there. This monumental law was passed by Indira Gandhi, who was committed to preserving the indigenous peoples of India and their habitats. Along that vein, commercial fishing has been banned around the islands.
The Andaman Islands had never been explored before by kayak, and we were particularly interested in the island’s wildlife and tribes. We obtained a rare permit from the Indian government to paddle along the shores and set up camp on remote jungle beaches but were told sternly upon arrival to avoid contact with indigenous people. We obeyed.
At one point in our journey, we had to return to the capital of Port Blair on public buses, which crossed through Jarawa territory along the Great Andaman Trunk Road. This road passes through the buffer zone of the Jarawa Reserve, where laws have been placed to minimize traveler contact with the native tribes. Only vehicle convoys with armed escorts are allowed. That was when I realized just how much the Jarawas wanted to maintain their independence—the sides of the buses were scarred by spears thrown by natives defending their territory.Yes, the Jarawas truly want to be left alone. In the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, the coast of the Andaman Islands was devastated by a 33-foot high wave. Strong oral traditions of the indigenous peoples in the area warned of the importance of moving inland after an earthquake, and this traditional knowledge is credited with saving many lives. In the aftermath of the disaster, the Indian government attempted to send rescue helicopters into the Jarawa-controlled beach areas. They were repelled by indigenous people, who threw stones and spears at the hovering helicopters, forcing them away.
After our successful trip to the islands, we flew back to Calcutta for our homebound international flights. In the airport, we met an eager American missionary who had obtained the first permit to spread his gospel among the islanders. We warned him not to intrude into this pristine area against the tribes’ will.
I don’t know what happened to that missionary, but I heard that the authorities changed the permit system back to the old regime, leaving the Jarawas undisturbed. Only researchers and anthropologists with pre-approved clearances were allowed to visit native areas. However, in late 2018, another American missionary traveled illegally to North Sentinel Island with the help of local fishermen. He is reported to have been shot to death by arrows by natives, and the locals will not be charged for any crime committed.
The habitats of indigenous peoples and animals are being invaded from all sides, by missionaries, developers and even tourists. A major problem is the volume of sightseeing tours that are operated by unsustainable private companies, whose tourists view, photograph or attempt interactions with Jarawas. These encounters are illegal under Indian law, and recently the Andaman Islands Tourism Department has begun to prosecute operators under a stricter interpretation of the statute.
During our visit to the Andamans, we were glad to see and experience the efforts in place to preserve indigenous people and habitats. Organizations like Natural Habitat Adventures applaud such efforts and support conservation work in the areas they travel, from the Galapagos Islands to Borneo.Let’s celebrate the earth’s diverse natural realms and pledge to protect untouched peoples and the habitats in which they live. It is from these places and indigenous knowledge-holders that we may learn how to take better care of our planet.