The cry goes up from the front of the bus and, in an instant, the tourists are on their feet, craning their necks to see a small boy clutching a short spear.
He is standing on the edge of the jungle, watching the convoy of vehicles thunder past on the Andaman Trunk Road. The tourists lurch toward the right-hand side of the vehicle to catch one last glimpse of him and then the government-run bus is past and he is gone.
It is Wednesday morning, three days before the start of the official tourist season and eight months since the Observer newspaper ran an investigation into the plight of the Aboriginal Jarawa tribe, and an accompanying video of young tribal women dancing semi-naked for food, scandalized India and brought international condemnation of the Andaman human safaris.
The spectacle of more than one-third of a million people pouring through the dwindling tribe’s jungle reserve each year, many of them intent on catching a glimpse of its largely reclusive inhabitants, prompted an outpouring of fury that could not be ignored.
The Indian government moved swiftly to introduce laws punishing interference with the Jarawa with seven years in jail. Two policemen were arrested over the video, and the second-in-command of the island’s police force was transferred after he was caught taking his family on a human safari. In July, the Indian Supreme Court — which ordered the closure of the road in 2002 — banned commercial and tourist activity inside a 5km buffer zone around the tribal reserve, warning that any breach of the order would amount to contempt of court.
That should have been the end of the human safaris, the term coined to describe the eight daily convoys of vehicles that run up and down the road through the jungle.
However, last week, when the Observer returned to the Andaman Islands, it was business as usual for the human safari industry. Not only does it continue, but it does so with the blessing of the Andaman and Nicobar administration, which runs its own daily tourist bus through the reserve. It costs 1,000 rupees (US$17.99) for a ticket on the air-conditioned bus (850 rupees without air conditioning), ostensibly to visit a limestone cave and mud “volcano” on Baratang Island, which lies 100km north of the capital, Port Blair — and inside the buffer zone fixed by the Supreme Court.
However, as the reactions of the bus passengers testify, the real attraction of the trip is that it runs through the Jarawa reserve on South Andaman island and offers the opportunity to see the inhabitants in their natural habitat.
The white bus, with the national tourism advertising slogan “Incredible India” painted on its side in large blue letters, picks up its first passengers next to the statue of former Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi in the center of Port Blair at 6:30am. A private bus company offering the same trip is collecting passengers from the same spot. It has been raining heavily, but it starts to ease as the bus heads north, entering the tall forest with its mix of hardwood trees and coconut palms. The bus draws up at the last checkpoint before the reserve to await the start of the second convoy of the day. The 13 passengers climb out and head for the stalls selling snacks and drinks.
Half a dozen cars are parked at the side of the road, also waiting for the convoy to start. Five minutes before the tour is due to depart, a loudspeaker crackles into life, instructing those waiting by their vehicles to stick to the rules, which are set out on the board next to the police post: Don’t give the Jarawa bananas and biscuits, don’t take pictures, don’t stop, don’t let the Jarawa into your vehicles. Anyone breaking the law faces five years in jail.