Taiwan's indigenous hunters left hanging

City talk | AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE 12 May 2021

Taiwan's top court has ruled some hunting restrictions on indigenous tribes are unconstitutional. But it stopped short of supporting an overhaul of regulations.

Hunting rules are a bone of contention among the indigenous communities, who have long felt discriminated against by Han Chinese who began arriving in the 17th century.

Under current regulations, indigenous people can only allowed to hunt with homemade rifles on festival days and with approval from authorities. Activists say homemade firearms are dangerous and argue the restrictions hurt tradition.

Friday's ruling by Taiwan's constitutional court was sparked by the 2013 prosecution of Tama Talum, a member of the Bunun tribe, for killing protected species with a modified rifle.

Retired tow truck driver Talum, 62, says from his home in Taitung county where he grows vegetables and looks after his 99-year-old mother: "For indigenous people hunting is about survival - and it's our culture."

His legal strife started eight years ago when he went to hunt food for his mother, who he says is used to eating wild game.

He was arrested for killing a Reeves's muntjac and a Formosan serow with a modified rifle and charged with possessing an illegal weapon and hunting protected species. He was sentenced to 3 years in prison.

Talum argues: "We hunt game to eat, not to sell."

While the supreme court upheld his conviction and prison term, it also asked the constitutional court to look at hunting laws. The panel of 15 judges declared that making indigenous communities apply for permission to hunt and to detail how many animals they expect to kill is unconstitutional.

But it declined to overturn the homemade rifle restriction or allow the killing of protected species.

Talum describes the ruling as "regrettable."

"We should be able to use good guns," he adds. "Why do we continue to use homemade guns that are dangerous."

He also dismisses concerns hunting will lead to the destruction of protected species, arguing that indigenous communities hunt at a subsistence level.

Hunting was once a core way of life for Taiwan's indigenous people.

Taiwan's 16 indigenous tribes led a comparatively uninterrupted life for thousands of years before people arrived from China.

They are an Austronesian people. Their languages, cultures and traditions are more closely linked to populations in Southeast Asia and the Pacific than China. But they now make up only 2.5 percent of Taiwan's 23 million population and face lower wages, higher rates of unemployment and poorer health indicators.

In 2016, President Tsai Ing-wen - Taiwan's first leader with some indigenous heritage - delivered a landmark apology for how officials have treated aboriginal communities.

Indigenous activists welcomed the apology but say core issues of dispute remain, particularly a loss of ancestral land rights.

As for hunting, skills are passed down through the generations. But Talum says his prosecution has already dissuaded some youngsters from following him.

Husung, a 28-year-old soldier and also a Bunun tribe member, says he was torn between wanting to follow customs and worrying about being in trouble for hunting.

And he fears hunting could fade away like other indigenous ways, asking: "How can we pass down the tradition to the next generations if we are afraid to go hunting?"

Piya, a 27-year-old dance instructor from the Paiwan tribe, points to what was once tribal territory now being national parkland, leading to regular disputes over hunting, fishing and foraging in areas where permits are needed.

"We are the original masters of Taiwan and we want mutual respect," Piya declares.

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