The Andaman and Nicobar (A&N) archipelago, situated 1200 km from the Indian mainland between the Bay of Bengal and Andaman sea, comprises approximately 350 tropical islands and islets of outstanding beauty and biological diversity. The land area of 8249 km² in the Andamans constitutes 306 named islands of which 98 are designated as sanctuaries including nine National parks and two marine National parks and one Biosphere Reserve. Although taxonomic studies are still far from complete, biologists have identified more than 214 bird species, of which 106 are endemic, 72 species of reptiles (25 endemic), 19 species of amphibians (10 endemic). Four species of marine turtles nest around these islands, including the largest marine turtle the leatherback sea turtle, which is a significant population for the Indian Ocean region.
Over 60 species of mammals are represented with 33 species being endemic,more than 197 coral species have so far been identified, making the reefs of the Andamans globally significant. Among other animals 5100 species are so far known, 100 freshwater, 2100 terrestrial and 2900 marine. Plant inventories have recorded 2500 flowering species and designated 223 of them as endemic. More than a quarter of the fauna and flora are endemic, while the remainder represents a fascinating mixture of taxa. The Andamans flora and fauna have Indo-Burmese affinities being a subset of Rakhine (Arakan) Yomas of Myanmar with sub continental India while those on the Nicobar Islands have Indo-Malayan affinities.
The land area is covered with almost 80 % of evergreen forests including lush tropical rainforests, now known to be globally a significant hotspot for biodiversity. The littoral and marine environments of the archipelago are no less varied and include essential nesting beaches for four threatened species of marine turtles and sea grass beds that support the few remaining individuals of the rare dugong or sea cow, the A&N State animal. Nearly all islands of the archipelago are indented by one of India's largest mangrove ecosystems encompassing 283 km²; these extensive networks of mangrove creeks are used as nurseries by varieties of marine fishes, 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 monitor lizards. The A&N archipelago is fringed by spectacular and diverse coral reefs in the Indian Ocean region, which support thousands of species of fish, coelenterates, mollusks, crustaceans and sea snakes.
Despite their remoteness, these extraordinary islands were rapidly colonised by settlers from mainland India after Indian independence, spurred by, human displacement due to wars and ethnic conflicts, establishing logging operations and opening of the forests for hundreds of thousands of land-hungry families seeking livelihood and economic opportunity. The large indiscriminate deforestation and encroachment not only destroyed the natural habitats of numerous native plants and animals, but also brought to naught specific ecosystems - especially the giant Andaman evergreen forests and swampy wetlands found originally in flat and lowland regions of the Andaman Islands. This also resulted in large-scale erosion and the degradation of many once-permanent freshwater sources. In recent years the fragile marine ecosystems are 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 forest and non-forest resources by illegal timber industry, sand mining for construction. Further, the vulnerable island biota are under threat from many potentially destructive introduced species, including invasive weeds, spotted and barking deer, rats, giant African snails, elephants, goats, dog, cats and more recently the Indian bull frog.
Of the protected area network in the islands the largest spaces are reserved for the indigenous islanders as Tribal Reserved regions. Four Tribal Reserves exist in the Andamans, while nearly all the Nicobar Islands are protected as Tribal Reserves. As home to the last indigenous tribes of islanders in the A&N archipelago, the designation of the various tribal reserves has protected the land for these remaining communities. While originally in the Andamans, indigenous islanders consisted of thirteen different tribes speaking dialects and languages of the unique Andamanese group of languages, most of these tribes were wiped out by disease and infections brought in by the early colonists. Today four separate indigenous identities remain in the Andaman Islands, of which two tribes continue to employ hunting and gathering for a livelihood, while two others are small remnant populations of their original tribes’ people, dependent on governmental dole programs to sustain their livelihood. In the Nicobar Islands six languages of the Nicobarese group of languages (Mon Khmer family) are still spoken across the Nicobar archipelago while the foraging tribe of hunters and horticulturists, the Shompen, live in the interior of Great Nicobar Island, which is the only Biosphere Reserve in the A&N Union territory. Most of these indigenous tribes of islanders continue to safeguard their territories from the outside world and the constant threat of encroachment and poaching of their livelihood resources.
While these threats will continue to exist, we hope that through facilitating research and continued understanding, individuals and organizations can contribute to renew our collective understanding of the islands resources and communities. These can inform and influence governmental policy initiatives toward environmental protection and sustainable livelihood practices, to empower local settler and indigenous communities. Balancing developmental needs of the growing human population of the islands while conserving these unique biological and socio-cultural systems of the islands can take place through well informed and appropriately designed developmental policies.