Hunting as an Indigenous Right on Taiwan: A Call to Action

[The following is an invited post by Scott Simon. Scott is Professor in the School of Sociological and Anthropological Studies at the University of Ottawa, Canada. Having conducted research in Taiwan for nearly two decades, he specializes in indigenous rights, hunting life-ways, and human-animal relations. His most recent book is Sadyaq Balae! L’autochtonie formosane dans tous ses états.]

Photo by 林秀玉 (Loking) 2015
Photo by 林秀玉 (Loking) 2015

In mid-December 2015, indigenous social activists protested across Taiwan with urban demonstrations and lighting of solidarity bonfires in rural communities. They were angry about the case of Tama Talum (Wang Guang-lu), a 56-year-old Bunun man slated to begin a 3.5 year prison sentence on December 15. In July 2013, at the request of his 92-year-old mother who wanted to eat traditional country food, he had hunted one Reeve’s muntjac (a small deer) and Formosan serow (a mountain goat).1 He was arrested and convicted in a Taitung court for illegal weapons possession and poaching. On October 29, 2015, the Supreme Court ruled against his appeal. Tama Talum’s case merits international attention for humanitarian reasons, but also because it reveals deeper human rights issues.

Taiwan’s indigenous peoples (known as Austronesians to anthropologists) have traditionally lived from horticulture and hunting. There are now 546,218 indigenous people in 16 officially recognized tribes. They have an active social movement, a quota of 6 indigenous legislators, a cabinet-level Council of Indigenous Peoples, and their collective rights are enshrined in the Constitution. Systematic violation of their right to hunt, however, remains a concern.

Indigenous Hunting as a Human Right

Indigenous hunting rights are recognized in international customary law, including International Labour Organization Convention 169, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Convention on Biological Diversity, Article 8j of which recognizes the value of indigenous practices and knowledge to wildlife conservation.

Taiwan’s 2005 Basic Law on Indigenous Peoples states clearly in Article 19 that:

Indigenous persons may undertake the following non-profit seeking activities in indigenous peoples’ regions: 1) Hunting wild animals; 2) Collecting wild plants and fungus; 3) Collecting minerals, rocks and soils; 4) Utilizing water resources. The above activities can only be conducted for traditional culture, ritual or self-consumption.

The sticking point is that this law is a Basic Law. In order to be implemented, all relevant laws must be revised. Currently, all hunting in National Parks (nearly 9% of Taiwan) remains illegal. The 1989 Wildlife Conservation Act bans trapping (the most common practice) entirely. Revisions permit hunting only for collective ceremonies upon application of a permit. The Statute for Controlling Firearms, Ammunition and Weapons has been revised to permit indigenous people to possess home-made rifles. Tama Talum was convicted because he did not use a “handmade” rifle and his hunt was not part of collective ritual. This ignores the provision for self-consumption in the Basic Law.

Indigenous Hunting as Life Practice

For indigenous people, hunting is not about killing animals, but rather about sociality and identity. For many young men, hunting is an important coming-of-age ritual and an opportunity for intergenerational transmission of knowledge. Hunting involves dangerous ordeals in ancestral forests, as well as sharing of meat with family and friends. It is spiritual form of communication with ancestors and mountain spirits. Some parents expect prospective sons-in-law to demonstrate their abilities by providing game. Each tribe in Taiwan has traditional legal institutions to regulate hunting. Hunters claim that their institutions successfully conserve wildlife, pointing to the continuing existence of animals as living evidence. Hunting and trapping are part of a larger embodied knowledge of forest animals and plants that would be lost forever if these practices ceased. The forests do not exist outside of human activity. They have been shaped by generations of hunters in ways conducive to animal well-being.

Taiwan’s current legal framework does not take indigenous hunting rights seriously. It condemns indigenous hunters to use “homemade” rifles that can be dangerous to the hunters and their companions. It forbids trapping entirely, even though this is the most common hunting practice. Current definitions of “culture” include only public rituals and ceremonies approved by local governments, without consideration of daily culture or subsistence needs. It does not provide provisions for the implementation and enforcement of indigenous-led hunting management.

This legal framework is also insufficient for conservation. Because indigenous people must hunt clandestinely, it is impossible for them to create effective management regimes. There are few incentives to evict other intruders (including non-indigenous poachers) from traditional territories now under exclusive state jurisdiction. Without sustainable hunting, knowledge and practices important to conservation will be lost; and fewer people will maintain a vested interest in nurturing wildlife habitat. This is a lose-lose situation for hunters and animals alike.

For now, Tama Talum’s sentence should be suspended or pardoned. Taiwan must immediately revise all relevant laws in accordance with the Basic Law. Only then can hunters reaffirm their role as stewards of the forests and establish institutions for effective management of hunting. These are important steps in indigenous rights. Since biodiversity loss is a worldwide crisis, this would also be a gift to the entire planet.

Take Action

Please help us show international support for Talum’s case by signing this petition.

Thank you!

For more information, see:

  1. Both species are classified as of “least concern” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. 

2 thoughts on “Hunting as an Indigenous Right on Taiwan: A Call to Action

  1. Tama Talum was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison, not 35 years. Perhaps a misprint for 3.5 years. Even so 3.5 years seems excessive. According to Taiwan Law Blog Mr. Tatum has not reported for his sentence. I wish him good luck in evading the long arm of the law!

  2. Actually the post does say 3.5, not “35” – it is just that the font we use for this site makes decimal points very hard to see…

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