Five “Uncontacted Tribes” Most Threatened With Extinction

Uncontacted tribes were in the world spotlight exactly one year ago when photos were released showing Indians, deep in the Brazilian Amazon, aiming bows and arrows at a government aircraft circling overhead.


Photo of the uncontacted tribe photographed last year in the Brazilian Amazon, near the Peruvian border.

© Gleison Miranda/FUNAI

“The photos made headlines around the world and threw uncontacted tribes into the international spotlight, provoking public outrage at the threats to their land, livelihoods and lives,” said Survival, an itinternational indigenous-rights group based in the UK.

“In spite of this, however, uncontacted tribes around the world are facing extinction,” the British-based organization said in a report, “Uncontacted Tribes Face Extinction,” published on the anniversary of last year’s photos. “Governments, companies and others ignore their rights, and invade and destroy their land with impunity.”


Members of the Paraguayan Ayoreo-Totobiegosode group the moment they were contacted for the first time, in 2004.

© GAT/Survival

The report exposes the plight of the world’s most threatened uncontacted tribes.

They live in five locations in three South American countries: Paraguay, Brazil and Peru.

They are just a few of the more than 100 uncontacted tribes known to exist worldwide, in South America, the Indian Ocean, and on the island of New Guinea, Survival said.


Members of the Paraguayan Ayoreo-Totobiegosode group on the day they were contacted for the first time, in 2004.

© GAT/Survival

“Uncontacted tribes face two principal threats to their survival,” the report says.

“By far the greatest is their lack of immunity to common Western diseases such as influenza, chicken pox, measles, and a host of respiratory diseases.

“Even where ‘first contact’ between an isolated tribe and outsiders is carefully managed, it is common for significant numbers of tribespeople to die in the months following contact.

“Where such encounters are not managed, with medical plans in place, the entire tribe, or a large proportion of it, can be wiped out.”


Such catastrophes have occurred repeatedly in the Amazon, and not just in the distant past: in 1996, for example, at least half the Murunahua Indians died after they were contacted by illegal mahogany loggers, according to Survival.

The other key threat is simply violence: in several of the cases outlined in the report the tribespeople face gangs of heavily-armed loggers who are likely to shoot them on sight, Survival said.

Uncontacted Mashco-Piro Indian woman spotted from the air, S.E.Peru, 2007.

© Heinz Plenge Pardo / Frankfurt Zoological Society

“Publication of the photos a year ago brought about a huge groundswell of support for the plight of uncontacted tribal people. But many governments still refuse to take the simple step – properly protecting their territories – that will actually ensure the tribes’ survival.


The five most threatened uncontacted tribes are:

  • Indians of the Pardo River, Brazil
  • The Awá, Brazil (see picture below)
  • Indians between the Napo and Tigre Rivers, Peru
  • Indians of the Envira River, Peru
  • The Ayoreo-Totobiegosode, Paraguay



Awá men hunting in the forest.

© Fiona Watson/Survival


Awá men travel down a road cut by loggers.

© Uirá Garcia

“These groups are all experiencing the invasion of their lands–by loggers, ranchers, colonists and oil companies–and all are at grave risk of being decimated by diseases to which they have no immunity,” Survival said in a news release announcing the report.

“The Awá, Rio Pardo Indians and Envira River Indians are all falling victim to the blight of illegal hardwood logging which is penetrating even the remotest parts of the Amazon.

“The Ayoreo-Totobiegosode of the Chaco scrub forests in western Paraguay, on the other hand, are experiencing the illegal clearance of their forests by cattle ranchers. Satellite photos taken over the past year have revealed huge areas illegally cleared in the Indians’ heartland.


Uncontacted Mashco-Piro Indians spotted from the air, S.E.Peru, 2007.

© Heinz Plenge Pardo / Frankfurt Zoological Society


Uncontacted Indians’ fishing shelters spotted on river bank, S.E. Peru, 2008.

© C. Fagan

“In the far north of Peru, the Indians living between the Napo and Tigre Rivers are caught in the middle of Peru’s oil boom. In recent years 75 percent of Peru’s Amazon has been carved up into oil and gas exploration concessions. Peru’s President has denied the existence of isolated Indians in the Napo/Tigre area, despite abundant evidence of their existence.”

Survival’s report calls on the governments of Paraguay, Brazil and Peru urgently to protect the tribes’ lands.

Survival’s Director Stephen Corry said, “Publication of the photos a year ago caused a huge groundswell of support for the plight of uncontacted tribal people. Many had not realised that such people exist, let alone that there are more than 100 uncontacted tribes around the world. But many governments still refuse to take the simple step–properly protecting their territories–that will actually ensure the tribes’ survival.”


Crossed spears found on a path in northern Peru, in the region where oil company Perenco is working. Crossed spears are a common sign used by uncontacted Indians to warn outsiders to stay away.

© Marek Wolodzko/Survival


Hastily abandoned house of the Rio Pardo Indians, Brazil.



Find more information about uncontacted people on the Survival Web site

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More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn