Taipei, Taiwan – Indigenous Taiwanese are awaiting a landmark decision from the island’s Supreme Court on Friday that will set the scope of their traditional hunting rights and potentially pave the way for limited civilian firearms return to the island after their use was severely restricted by law in the early 1980s.
The case began eight years ago in 2013 with the persecution of the indigenous bunun hunter Talum Suqluman (Wang Kuang-lu) under the island’s conservation laws.
He was initially sentenced to three and a half years in prison after found guilty of killing two protected animals with a “modified rifle”, despite the suspension of his sentence in 2017 after an international outcry.
However, the hunter continued to struggle against his convictions – represented by Taiwan’s Legal Aid Foundation.
Earlier this year, the Taiwanese Constitutional Court heard from several plaintiffs whether the island’s conservation laws inappropriately restricted the rights of indigenous people to claim hunting as an important cultural practice and to conduct small-scale hunts.
On Friday afternoon, the Supreme Court will decide whether indigenous hunters can only use homemade weapons and traps to kill animals and whether they must apply for government approval before they hunt.
Taiwan’s Legal Aid Foundation told Al Jazeera that the laws were both impractical and contrary to traditional customs protected by the island’s indigenous peoples’ constitution.
“The Wildlife Conservation Act regulates indigenous hunters who must submit an application and report how many and what kind of animals they would hunt beforehand, which is against the traditional laws that prey is the blessing of the ancestral spirits, so that one does not boast and Otherwise you will be punished by God ”, said the legal center of the indigenous peoples of the foundation.
“We can’t help but wonder in the unpredictable environment like the woods how to predict what prey will be hunted.”
Paiwan hunter Baubu Caljas leads a group through the forest in Pingtung County in southern Taiwan. Hunters like Baubu say animal populations have recovered and are now easy to find near hiking trails and rural communities [Courtesy of Joshua Yang]Taiwan recognizes 16 indigenous groups whose ancestors had lived on the island for thousands of years before the first ethnic Han arrived from mainland China in the 17th century and the ROC government settled on the island in 1949.
“Hunting is an integral part of our indigenous culture,” said Baubu Caljas, a Paiwan hunter who heads an indigenous youth organization in southern Taiwan. “The offering of animals is often the most important process in our traditional religious rituals, which include funerals, harvest festivals, and prayers.
“I think it’s unfair to even have to ask the government for the ‘legal right’ to hunt. The [Republic of China] The government took over our homeland a few decades ago. We, the indigenous peoples of Taiwan, have existed on this island for millennia and live with our lives. Did the government ask for the “right” to rule us when they took control? “
The Taiwanese Ministry of Agriculture has expressed concern that the relaxation of laws will result in a return to overhunting in Taiwan, where local species were once critically endangered.
For 300 years, animals, including the tiny Muntjac deer and monkeys, were hunted for their fur, most of which was exported.
Most hunting ended with a moratorium in the early 1970s, during the island’s martial law era, albeit to a lesser extent to meet demand for game meat, mainly among ethnic Han Taiwanese, according to conservation expert Kurtis Pei.
It wasn’t until the Wildlife Conservation Act of 1989 that commercial hunting was officially banned. Since then, according to Pei, the populations of monkeys, muntjac and sambar deer have recovered.
The Paiwan hunter Baubu Caljas is preparing a Mutjack deer that he previously killed in the forest. Indigenous peoples are the only Taiwanese allowed to hunt, but they are only allowed to use traps and homemade weapons [Courtesy of Joshua Wang]In contrast to commercial hunting, indigenous hunting is only carried out at subsistence level or to prevent the consumption of plants by animals and has not hindered the recovery of the species.
“What outsiders misunderstand the most is that they think we are killing everything we see indiscriminately,” said Silan Oyon, an Amis Atayal hunter who teaches a hunting class in Wulai, a neighborhood of New Taipei is known for its hot springs and mountain landscapes.
“We don’t hunt on a whim. We follow the seasons and alternate between mountains and river banks. Han (ethnic Chinese) think we spend all day, every day, hunting. “
As animal populations have boomed over the past 20 years, Baubu says a limited amount of hunting has become necessary to maintain an ecological balance.
“To us who live so close to the mountains, it’s pretty obvious that wildlife numbers are getting a little out of control. Without predators in the current ecosystem, these animals reproduce quickly and the overall plant density is decreasing, ”he said.
“Now Muntjacs come into the plain and bark in the community at night. With the gradual disappearance of vegetation, we have also seen a higher frequency of landslides in recent years. On the other hand, you have a decline in hunting activities as a result of the generations’ cultural loss. I think it’s not difficult to see that indigenous hunting only affects a negligible part of a thriving wildlife population. “
Unlike Taiwan’s current application-based system, indigenous hunters and experts would prefer a hunting management system that gives local communities more control over the management and monitoring of hunting activities.
“The key is to create some kind of institution where hunters in any location can manage the hunting site themselves. They are already doing it, but it would be nice if there were some incentives to make it more formal, ”said Scott Simon, co-holder of the Chair in Taiwan Studies at the University of Ottawa, Canada, who lived with indigenous communities in the South for several years – and Eastern Taiwan.
Some semi-official collaborations have already achieved results.
Pei, who is also a professor at Pingtung University of Science and Technology in Taiwan, has worked closely with hunting associations as part of his conservation research. Indigenous communities in the mountainous Alishan community in central Taiwan have had some success working with the forest bureau, said Babua, who hoped the hunt would be managed through more cooperative associations.
According to current rules, Taiwan’s indigenous people use homemade and modified weapons, which are sometimes used to subject animals to long and painful death [File: Sam Yeh/AFP]Guns are a sticking point, however.
Currently, according to the Taiwanese media, hunters are using homemade weapons, usually made from devices such as modified nail guns or muzzle loading rifles, which require hunters to add gunpowder to fire each shot.
But they say that such weapons are both dangerous and cruel because they can easily misfire or leave an animal facing a painful death.
“[Ethnic] Han people sometimes come across a dead animal thought to be dead in the mountains and share the photo with the words [Indigenous] People kill willfully, ”said Silan. “It’s actually because our weapons are not good, not like those of foreign hunters. The prey could run for a long time after the shot. It can take multiple shots to kill, which is more cruel. “
For security reasons, according to Taiwanese media, the Interior Ministry has considered allowing indigenous hunters to purchase registered firearms.
If the change were passed, Taiwan’s government would be in a unique position to expand gun rights, albeit on a small scale, where most places have tried to restrict them.
Most civilians are prohibited from possession of firearms, including handguns, rifles, and shotguns, under Taiwan’s gun legislation. Apart from indigenous hunters, only fishermen can apply for permission to own a harpoon pistol.
The Indigenous Peoples Legal Center has said the Supreme Court decision on Friday could go well beyond gun rights and have a significant impact on the rights of indigenous peoples in Taiwan.
An indigenous village celebrates after a hunting festival in Chishang Township, Taitung County [Sam Yeh/AFP]Although the communities are protected by a number of laws, they do not enjoy the same level of protection as the Canadian First Nations or the New Zealand Maori.
The government of President Tsai Ing-wen, the first indigenous leader, has shown interest in extending the rights of indigenous peoples.
Activists hope that a decision in favor of the communities can help move this cause further.