Islands of hope
© Emre Caylak

Islands of hope

  • TEXT NICOLE GRAAF
  • PHOTOS EMRE CAYLAK

The far-flung Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean are one of the few places on earth where nature is still unspoilt. Meet three activists who are committed to keeping it this way.

Ten meters below the surface of the water, Sajan Pulinchery takes a close look and then carefully removes two branches from a young stony coral growing on a large plastic table. A table on the seabed? We’ll get back to that later. Right now, though, the blue damselfish dart apart and seek cover between the remaining coral branches. Holding his harvest and with a powerful kick of his flippers, the diver swims to the nearby reef and drills two holes in a fossilized brain coral. With the steady hand of a neurosurgeon, Pulinchery inserts the yellow branches and, in doing so, helps a new colony of corals to grow off the coast of the island of Havelock in the Andaman Sea.

“It’s like gardening, only underwater,” says the wiry 43-year-old, who runs a diving school and an eco-resort, and is committed to preserving one of the world’s most important marine habitats. He was 19 when he came across a book about the Indian Andaman territory and was so intrigued that he abandoned his computer science course in the Indian IT capital of Bengaluru, packed his stuff and for five years swapped a bed for a hammock on the beach of one of his dream islands. In the mid-1990s, Pulinchery was one of the first tourists to visit the Andaman Islands.

Islands of hope

Natural heritage: Radhanagar Beach on Havelock ­Island

© Emre Caylak
Islands of hope

Sajan ­Pulinchery shows the stony corals he propagated in his coral ­nursery

© Emre Caylak

 The green islands, which include the Nicobar Islands farther south, are located in the Bay of Bengal between Thailand and India. Decades of government neglect proved to be a blessing for the environment: The coral reefs remained largely intact. Mission Blue, an NGO based in California, added the Andaman Islands to their list of marine “Hope Spots.” These special places with a diverse underwater habitat are classified as critical to the health of the world’s oceans and require special protection. The countless reefs around the islands provide a habitat for fish, corals and mollusks, whose larvae and eggs form part of the plankton and drift long distances with the currents, helping to preserve marine biodiversity. No fewer than four species of turtles nest on the islands’ beaches and the region is a vital habitat for the endangered dugong.

Now, this natural paradise under threat. Like most reefs worldwide, the coral banks of the Andaman Islands are affected by ocean warming; the rising water temperatures cause coral bleaching and dieback. The tsunami in 2004 devastated the underwater world, and the rise in unsustainable tourism adds to this burden: “Some diving schools that are out to make a quick buck let their clients touch or even stand on the corals,” says Pulinchery, “which kills these highly sensitive creatures.” This is one of the reasons the Indian government has put the roughly 570 Andaman and Nicobar Islands under very strict protection. Only 38 islands are inhabited; tourists are currently allowed to visit only about two dozen – and a permit is required to visit the extensive jungle areas. Already, the islands attract some  400 000 tourists annually, which is approximately the same number as the population of the archipelago. Only a two-hour flight from Chennai, the Andaman Islands are a conveniently located destination for honeymoons or beach holidays. And because the government conservation programs cannot protect the reefs, coastlines and forests in the face of rising visitor numbers, more and more idealists are launching their own projects to protect the islands. People like Sajan Pulinchery.

Islands of hope

Coral hero: Diving in­structor Sajan Pulinchery

© Emre Caylak
Islands of hope

Garima Poonia organizes trash ­collections on the beach

© Emre Caylak
Islands of hope
© Emre Caylak

 At some point, he noticed that the corals on the reef close to his diving school were dying. Alarmed, he learned how to propagate corals on special tables; the cuttings spend six months in this nursery before being transplanted. “If we have beautiful corals close to the shore, then we don’t need to take the divers out in boats,” he says – which helps to protect the environment. On balance, the eco-pioneer believes that carefully managed tourism can be beneficial. “People who do a diving discovery course and see the wonderful underwater world will understand why the reefs are so urgently in need of protection.”

He is also worried about the increasing amount of trash in the sea. Apart from Port Blair, the islands have is no waste disposal service. Garima Poonia came to Neil Island two years ago as a tourist, saw the problem and stayed to help. The lively 26-year-old from northern India didn’t want to just laze on the beach, she wanted to make a difference. “When I saw all the plastic plates and bottles on the beach, and all the garbage bags at the hotels, I knew something had to be done,” she says. She had collaborated on garbage collection projects back home and wanted to make locals and visitors alike aware of the problem. Previously, people simply burnt the trash in their backyards. Poonia went from village to village, spoke to the owners of the guesthouses and big hotels, suggesting that they sort their trash and pay a collection fee. “Only one of the 16 large hotels refused to sign up – not a bad result!” says Poonia.

Islands of hope

A tidal zone on North Andaman

© Emre Caylak
Islands of hope

Flying high: The white- bellied sea eagle is the largest eagle in the ­Andamans

© Emre Caylak

 The eco-activist aims to raise awareness among tourists with posters and waste collection campaigns on the beach. This morning, her volunteers, armed with plastic sacks, gloves and trash pickers, swarm through the jungle. Birds with crimson head feathers and forked tails, found only on these islands, squawk in the treetops. The group reaches its destination after a good 45 minutes: a deserted bay with fine white sand, surrounded by rocks burnished smooth by the ocean over the centuries. People rarely come here. The surf has driven countless plastic bottles, buoys, shoes and scraps of fishing nets onto the pristine beach. By the time they set off on the return leg, the group has collected a dozen bags of trash. Poonia stows them securely in the undergrowth. A boat will come next day to take them to the port. For the following day, Poonia has arranged for transportation to the capital, a two-and-a-half-hour drive away. A local recycling dealer has agreed to send the collection to the mainland for processing. “This is a trial,” stresses Poonia, “because shipping waste is expensive and complicated.” The islands’ isolated location, long their main form of protection, is now proving to be a challenge.

John Aung Thong has also been organizing trash collections in his village. The solemn islander, in his mid-forties and with precisely parted, greying hair, lives on Middle Andaman, one of the largest but also most inaccessible islands. The ten-hour convoy to get there goes from Port Blair through the reserve of the Jarawas, an indigenous Andamanese people who have little contact with the outside world. The government has strict rules to protect their dense jungle reserve. Only the convoys are allowed to pass through the area three times a day.

Saw John, Mr. John, as everyone here respectfully calls him, is a member of the Karen ethnic group. During colonial rule, the British brought the Karen to the Andaman Islands from Myanmar to work as carpenters. They acquired a reputation for their unrivalled ship-building skills, carving seaworthy canoes from the Andaman redwood, a type of mahogany that can grow up to 40 meters tall. However, since the species was put under a nature conservation order, this tradition has stopped, as has diving for shells and sea cucumbers that were sold to China and South-East Asia as medicines. The Karen were also prohibited from hunting small birds and lizards, collecting fruits and berries in the jungle and chopping wood, bamboo and palm fronds for their houses and fences. Anyone contravening this ban faced prosecution as a poacher and illegal logger.

Islands of hope

John Aung Thong protects culture and nature

© Emre Caylak

 Saw John would never have given this much thought if he hadn’t got a job as a janitor 25 years ago at the newly founded ANET biological research center near Port Blair and soon worked his way up to become a research assistant. “My job made me aware of environmental protection,” he says. Two years ago, he returned to his village to help the inhabitants, who either lived in poverty or left to find work in the diving schools. “Our cultural heritage is in danger of becoming lost,” says Saw John. With the support of ANET, he set up a project to grow traditional plants, such as bamboo. “The Karen get them free so that they can plant them for use later, instead of having to collect wood in the jungle.” He also distributes medicinal plants, like verbena. “Few people still know how to use these healing plants,” he says. “You can eat the leaves of this plant raw for relief from stomach pain.” Saw John’s father was one of the last traditional healers of the Karen people; now, his son is keeping this knowledge alive, and in doing so, is not only preserving traditions, but also protecting natural resources.


GETTING THERE

In September, Lufthansa is flying daily from Frankfurt (FRA) to Chennai (MAA); from there, an Indian carrier flies to Port Blair/Andamans. Use the app to calculate your miles: miles-and-more.com/app