When Taiwan’s Indigenous Hunters Become Prey

After Tama Talum of the Bunun people was sentenced to three and half years in prison for hunting wild game, there were no more shotguns fired at Takimi hamlet, and the sound of cicadas enveloped the tribe.

 Tama Talum speaks at a protest for indigenous hunter's rights in August 2018. Photo courtesy of  Civilmedia Taiwan .

Tama Talum speaks at a protest for indigenous hunter's rights in August 2018. Photo courtesy of Civilmedia Taiwan.

By Lin Yang-yi

This article was originally published in the Initium in Traditional Chinese. It is being reprinted in English with permission of the author and editor. 

On March 4th, dozens of protestors gathered in front of Taiwan’s Constitutional Court on Chongqing South Road. Some of the protesters were dressed in lawyer’s robes, and some were dressed in traditional indigenous clothing. They were holding signs that read “Decriminalize hunting!” and “The Wildlife Conservation Law violates the constitution!” 

They were protesting the many criminal sentences imposed on Taiwan’s indigenous people for hunting. They shouted out that the Wildlife Conservation Law was in conflict with Taiwan’s Indigenous Peoples Basic Act, and that the Law should be invalidated. 

This wave of protests was triggered by a heavy sentencing for hunting. On the day Tama Talum of the Bunun people was scheduled to be sentenced to prison, protestors loudly shouted their support for Talum, leading the entire case to take an unexpected turn. 

The story begins on December 14th, 2015, when smoke signals went up in front of Taiwan’s Ministry of Justice, and a group of people stood outside the court chanting “Talum is innocent!” Talum was guilty of violating both the Guns, Ammunition and Knife Control Regulation as well as the Wildlife Conservation Law. He was scheduled for prison sentencing one day later, all because of a hunting rifle and two animal carcasses. 

This is a clash between the hunting culture of Taiwan's indigenous people and "modern civilization's" rule of law.

A Way of Life for the Bunun People

Talum is from the small hamlet of Takimi, in Taiduan Township, Taitung County. People in his tribe mainly subsist on farming. Takimi sits high among verdant green mountains, seemingly floating on a sea of white clouds. The air is fresh after it rains, bringing an earthly aroma to the hamlet. Takimi is typical of the scenery one sees on Taiwan’s east coast; paddy fields and villages are scattered between the mountain ridges. 

Talum took our journalists to his garage where he and his nephew Talum (they share the same name) showed us their homemade hunting rifles.  

These rifles have been in their family for generations, you can tell by looking at the rusty gun barrels, and the aged wooden handles.  Talum’s nephew tried to show us how the rifle works, but his first attempt failed because the gunpowder did not ignite properly. Talum chuckled and gives it another try. This time we got a solid gunshot, and the sound bounces away into the mountains.

In traditional Bunun culture, hunting is not an occupation, but a basic life skill every man develops. Brave hunters who catch ferocious prey become warriors, and earn the respect of his people. These hunters also have an opportunity to take part in important cultural events like the annual “Ear Shooting Festival” and be celebrated for their hunting exploits through traditional rituals such as the “Malastapang.” 

Young Bunun hunters learn how to shoot and make rifle from their elders, and enter deep into the central mountain range to hunt. This learning process between master and student is carried out in a low-key manner, and tribes do not openly declare who has these hunting skills.

Apprentices often start off by carrying equipment for their masters before learning how to hunt and after years of learning through observation. They are only qualified to inherit the family rifle after becoming a successful hunter. Talum is a very experienced hunter, and learned how to hunt from his father when he was 8 years old. His only hunting partner is a hound. 

Bunun people normally go hunting at night. They do this because they’re busy during the day, and it’s easier to spot animal eyes’ at night from the hunter’s flashlights. Once the hunters see their game, they quickly grab their rifle and shoot. After shooting off two rounds from their rifle, the prey falls down in the forest grove, and their hunting dogs look for their final location. 

Hunting is an essential part of Bunun life, but under Taiwan’s “civilized” modern law, hunting for the Bunun is only permitted during the annual seven-day Ear Shooting Festival season. Before or after the Festival period, the Bunun people must apply to the government for written permission to hunt, and can only hunt in specific legal hunting areas. 

On August 25th 2013, Talum was on his way back home. It was a good night for hunting. He caught a Reeves’s muntjac and a Formosan serow for his 94-year-old mother who doesn’t like to eat mass produced meat. At 2am, he was stopped by police. They asked him to head over to the police station after they found Talum carrying two dead animals protected under the Wildlife Conservation Law.

 A Formosan Serow. Image courtesy of  Wikimedia .

A Formosan Serow. Image courtesy of Wikimedia.

Talum wasn’t worried, because this wasn’t the first time he was caught. He was caught in 2006 while hunting with his nephew, and he was sentenced to one year in prison for killing two Reeves’s muntjacs.  

Talum is not the first indigenous hunter to be arrested for illegal hunting in Taiwan.  In October 2015, a Truku man from Tongmen Township, Hualien County was arrested for failing to report to local authorities about a hunting festival. The man was arrested and charged for violating Taiwan’s Guns, Ammunition and Knife Control Regulation and the Wildlife Conservation Law.

On December 30th 2014, during a large-scale hunting festival, five people from the Papulu tribe were arrested because the design of their homemade hunting rifles did not comply with Taiwan’s rifle regulations. 

In December 2013, a Paiwan hunter named Tsai Chung-cheng (蔡忠誠) was arrested for improving the accuracy of his traditional hunting rifle. He was sentenced to two years and eight months in prison by a district court, and ordered to pay a fine of $100,000 New Taiwan Dollars (about $3,500 USD). The case was later taken to Taiwan’s Supreme Court, and Tsai was judged not guilty.

These are the most well-known cases over the past few years, and most hunting related cases don’t receive much attention, but there’s at least one indigenous hunting case that goes before the courts every month.

What surprised Talum about being caught this time was the severe sentence he received. How severe is three years and six months? To give you perspective on the length of Talum’s sentence, consider the length of sentencing for a far more serious crime: Zhen Xiaojiang (鎮小江), a Chinese intelligence officer operating in Taiwan, only received a sentence of 4 years. None of Zhen’s Taiwanese collaborators received a sentence longer than 3 years.

Talum’s family and friends were shocked when they heard the court’s decision. People within the tribe thought it might have been a joke or a mistake. But after appealing the case two times, no one was laughing when the ruling was upheld.

A shot that reverberates throughout the tribe

The punishment was so severe not only because Talum went hunting without permission, but also because of the kind of rifle he used.

The hunting rifle Talum used violated Article 20, Section 1 of Taiwan’s Guns, Ammunition and Knife Control Law. Talum did not create the gun himself, and its design does not comply with traditional indigenous rifle design. Talum could not provide the origin of the rifle, because he said he found it in the mountain. 

According to Article 20, Taiwan’s indigenous peoples are not allowed to use rifles with too much firepower, only traditional indigenous steel-making methods are permitted for rifle construction. Even though technology has improved over time, the rifles indigenous peoples are permitted to use are relics of the past.

Even more absurd, the hunting rifles their ancestors used were more advanced than the ones they use now. During the Japanese administrative period, the government confiscated the French bolt-action rifles (Fusil Gras M80 1874) used by indigenous hunters, and replaced them with Japanese-made Murata rifles, which were safer and easier to manage.

However, the KMT government took away the Murata rifles when they arrived in Taiwan, and forced Taiwan’s indigenous peoples to return to using the French bolt-action models, a rifle that is less safe, less powerful and less sophisticated.

For Taiwan’s indigenous hunters, the traditional rifles are not safe at all, because there is a complete absence of production standardization, nor is there is any quality assessment process. The firepower for these guns are not only weak, but they also jam and misfire.

In Talum’s case, the court ruled that Talum’s rifle could load “filling standard bullets” which are restricted under the Guns, Ammunition and Knife Control Law.

Umas, the leader of Takimi hamlet, told Initium Media that Han Chinese society has a normative fear of guns, and they always worry that guns could be used to rob a bank. But indigenous peoples have consistently used guns to hunt, and don’t carry them into the cities. “Also, we’re not criminals,” said Umas.

 Talum and supporters protesting for indigenous hunting rights in August 2018. Photo courtesy of  Civilmedia .

Talum and supporters protesting for indigenous hunting rights in August 2018. Photo courtesy of Civilmedia.

The Court’s ruling not only frightened Talum, it also spooked Long-chuan tribe. Talum’s tribe didn’t dare go out hunting after hearing about the three year six month prison sentence. Young Bunun apprentices also didn’t dare ask their elders how to design and shoot hunting rifles. Silence enveloped the hamlet of Takimi, like a forest of cicadas chirping through the night.

Talum was desperate, and he resigned himself to serving time in prison. He gave away the ducks he was raising, and asked his daughter in Taoyuan to come back to Takimi to take care of his 94-year-old mother while he was in prison. He even asked the judge whether he could take his mom in to the prison with him.

As Talum was preparing for the worst, a friend from the tribe took him to a branch of Taiwan’s Legal Aid Foundation in Taitung. A lawyer named Chen Tsai-yi (陳采邑) was willing to take up the case and defend Talum in court. Chen used to work for the north branch of the Legal Aid Foundation, where she worked on numerous cases related to indigenous rights’ issues. In Eastern Taiwan’s Hua-tung region, she began work on multiple indigenous hunting related cases. 

As she built a closer relationship with Indigenous people, Chen began to realize that many government policies were seemingly designed to be oppressive.

Indigenous hunters are not only bond by duty to supply a livelihood for their family, but they are also bond by certain hunters’ ethics. For example, they are not permitted to kill female or young animals, and they cannot over hunt a certain species in order to secure a balanced environment. Moreover, hunting animals can ensure certain vegetation is not excessively fed on by animals.

But because Han Chinese society has a limited understanding of indigenous cultures, hunting is painted as “poaching” and “ruthless” in Taiwan’s media, leading to many indigenous peoples refusing to mention rifles and hunting.

Chen believes Han Chinese and indigenous peoples conceptualize the environment differently. For Han Chinese, the people are the principal agents, and the environment is the object and needs to be protected. It’s exactly the opposite for Taiwan’s indigenous peoples; the land and nature is the principal agent, and it nurtures the people, providing them with nourishment.

During Chen’s defense of Talum in court, she used the argument: “It’s the forest that protects us, not us who protect the forest.” She used a “cultural defence” to suggest that the societal views and traditions of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples should be introduced and integrated into Taiwan’s courts.

"Protect Indigenous Culture, Hunters are the Vulnerable Ones"

When Chen Tsai-yi took over the case, there was only two weeks left before Talum was supposed to begin his prison sentence.

Her first reaction upon taking the case was “this case is dead.” The only was to revive a dead case was to request a retrial, and in order to win the retrial, she had to re-conceptualize, reorganize and rebuild the entire suit.

On December 2nd, Chen updated her Facebook status with a short message:

“Help… A Bunun man from Taitung used his handmade rifle to hunt down a Reeves’s muntjac and a Formosan serow for his 94-year-old mother. He’s being charged with violating the Guns, Ammunition, and Knife Control Law and was sentenced to serve three years six months in prison, and fined $70,000 NTD (about $2,400 USD). He’s supposed to begin his prison term on December 15th. He hasn’t told his mother because he worries she won’t take the news well.”

Chen’s Facebook post was quickly shared among her network, with over 300 people sharing it.

Taiwan’s media outlets praised Talum as the “pious son,” helping him receive far-reaching online support. On December 8th, dozens of civil society organizations went to the protest in front of the Ministry of Justice to support Talum. On December 12th, supporters rallied to Talum’s side in his hometown. In front of the Haiduan Bunun Museum, protesters chanted: “Protect indigenous culture, hunters are the vulnerable ones,” and shot their rifles into the air.

On the day Talum was supposed to register with prison authorities, he told reporters he had done nothing wrong, and unless court prosecutors sent police to arrest him, he would not go to prison himself. That afternoon, Talum received news from the Prosecutor’s Office. The prosecutor-general had filed a retrial for Talum, delaying the date he would have to report to prison.

Thinking back on the case, Chen says without media and online support, Talum’s story would never have moved up to the level of a social movement. This case isn’t simply about Talum, it symbolizes the challenges the Bunun people face in carrying out traditional practices like hunting. After hearing the news from the prosecutor-general, the Bunun people slowly returned to hunting.

“I hope the new government has some kind of breakthrough on this case, and lets indigenous peoples progressively realize their own autonomy,” said former Haiduan Township head Lowng.

This reporter asked a follow-up question: “What kind of autonomy are you describing?”

“It’s only natural that each group will have their own ideas about what autonomy means. Revising the law is also a very long and draining process. But it’s necessary to at the very least allow us to participate in the discussion, so that our views can be heard and reflected upon,” said Lowng.

As Talum’s case received wider attention, indigenous groups held a press conference; the slogan of the conference was “hunting is a right, not a crime.” The groups made a formal request to the government to revise parts of the Wildlife Conservation Law. They hope the government can protect the hunting rights of indigenous peoples, and stop criminalizing hunters.

After the retrial, Talum’s life slowly returned to normal. He was able to go back to work, driving his pick-up truck along the narrow mountain roads of Taiwan’s East Coast. Talum’s grandson sleeps by his side in the truck, and he’s gotten used to bringing him everywhere during this two year ordeal. Now Talum can breathe a sigh of relief, and help bring up the next generation of Bunun youth.

Taiwan Gazette