About  |  The Islands

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are  a union territory of India and lie at the junction of the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. Comprising over 500 islands, of which only 30 are inhabited, this archipelago has rich biodiversity as well as a unique cultural history.

The extensive networks of mangrove creeks serve as nurseries by many species of marine fish, and are habitats for shell fish, invertebrates and crabs, wetland and coastal birds, a range of littoral and true mangrove flora, saltwater crocodiles and water monitors.

The Andaman and Nicobar archipelago, situated 1200 km from the Indian mainland between the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, comprise several hundred tropical islands of outstanding beauty and biological diversity. The island group encompass nearly seven degrees of latitude from the southern most point of Great Nicobar (6º 45′ N) to the northern tip on Landfall island (13º 40′ N), situated above North Andaman. Together, the two groups contribute to two exceptionally diverse global biodiversity hotspots (Indo Burma and Sundaland). The land area of 8249 km² includes over 300 named islands of which 98 are designated as sanctuaries, including nine national parks, two marine national parks and one biosphere reserve.

Lush evergreen forests cover almost 80 % of the land area of the islands. Although taxonomic studies are still far from complete, current species lists include over 60 species of mammals (33 endemics), 214 species of birds (106 endemics), 72 species of reptiles (25 endemics), and 19 species of amphibians (10 endemics). Vegetation surveys have recorded over 2500 flowering plants (223 endemics). The littoral and marine environments of the archipelago are no less diverse and include extensive sea grass beds that support the few remaining individuals of the dugong, the state animal of the islands. Four species of marine turtles nest along these islands, including the the leatherback turtle, the largest marine turtle; the Little Andaman and the Nicobars are among their last remaining nesting grounds in the Indian Ocean region. The islands in the archipelago are fringed by coral reefs that support thousands of species of fish, coelenterates, mollusks, crustaceans and sea snakes. More than 197 coral species have been identified till date, making these reefs globally significant. This number is expected to increase with survey effort as these islands are located in the geographical vicinity of the species rich Coral Triangle in South East of Asia. Nearly all islands of the archipelago are indented by mangroves; together, they cover nearly 300 sq. km to form one of India’s largest mangrove ecosystems. The extensive networks of mangrove creeks serve as as nurseries by many species of marine fishe, and are habitats for shell fish, invertebrates and crabs, wetland and coastal birds, a range of littoral and true mangrove flora, saltwater crocodiles and water monitors. In recent years, increasing stretches of the fragile marine ecosystems have been jeopardised by siltation (from eroded soil), sewage contamination, plastic and oil pollution and short-sighted resource exploitation, such as the indiscriminate collection of marine resources as curios and exploitation of the biological diversity for the sea-food industry (these include shark fins, sea cucumbers, lobsters, crabs and target fisheries). Other threats include poaching of various wild resources, illegal timber extraction, and sand mining. Further, island biota are also under threat from many potentially destructive introduced species such as invasive weeds, spotted and barking deer, rats, giant African snails, elephants, goats, dog, cats and more recently the Indian bull frog.

Adhith Swaminathan

In addition to their natural wealth, the islands have a long history of human occupation. The tension between resistance and assimilation between island peoples and outsiders has been an ongoing socio-political feature for several centuries. Beginning with the colonial era, when the Andaman islands were identified as a penal colony by the British, violent indigenous resistance was followed by the extinction of several Andamanese peoples and the loss of traditional ways of life for most others. The islands also became home to settler communities from different regions on the Indian mainland who outnumber local groups in most islands. These include descendants of convict settlers from different corners the mainland, settler groups brought into the islands during the early decades of the 1900s for labour (Karen settlers from Burma, communities from Ranchi, and the members of the Bhatu community, a notified ‘criminal’ tribe were brought under the watchful guardianship of the quasi-military Salvation Army) and other groups such as timber workers, refugees and fishing communities from the Indian mainland. Indigenous groups and settlers who arrived at different periods of time together constitute a unique, socially complex assemblage of communities. Following the departure of the British (a brief violent interlude of Japanese occupation was also sustained during World War II), the islands were incorporated as a marginalised backwater of the Republic of India.

The contemporary relationships of traditional communities as well as those of migrant settlers, and cross-cultural interactions between these groups has been poorly understood, albeit with exceptions.While a number of traditional communities of the Great Andamanese groups were decimated or have been assimilated into mainstream culture through various ‘civilising’ missions, or have been put on government support, groups such as the Jarawa in South and Middle Andaman and the Shompen on Great Nicobar continue to lead somewhat secluded lifestyles and are aided by the current policy of non-contact. The Ongee of Little Andaman are primarily segregated within reservations. The islanders of North Sentinel remain the only indigenous group that resides without formal contact with the outside world. Their seclusion (and perceived hostility which is both a matter of curiosity and concern to outsiders) is currently facilitated by the Indian government’s strict no-contact policy. In contrast, the coastal communities of the Nicobars have lifestyles that are at once locally embedded while also being enmeshed within wider networks with the outside world. The protected area network in the islands the largest spaces are reserved for the indigenous islanders as Tribal Reserves. Four Tribal Reserves exist in the Andamans, while nearly all the Nicobar Islands are protected as Tribal Reserves.

In recent times, the location of these islands within a region of emerging geopolitical, economic and strategic significance, has brought into focus renewed pressures relating to development in the islands. The Nicobar islands were also among the first places to be affected by the 2004 tsunami, resulting in extensive loss of lives and devastation. On account of their location within a highly active seismic zone, both island groups continue to remain vulnerable to future natural disasters. For a group of islands, enmeshed within humanitarian, ecological and developmental challenges, environmental protection and sustainable development that are cognizent to social and environmental justice, remains topical to research and interventions in both marine and terrestrial spaces.