TAIPEI (AFP) - Taiwan's top court will rule on whether the island's current hunting regulations breach the constitutional rights of indigenous tribes in a long-running legal saga that is reaching its landmark conclusion.
The hearing, which began on Tuesday (March 8), centres around a member of the Bunun tribe who was arrested in 2013 for killing a deer and goat on land near his village in southern Taitung county.
Mr Tama Talum, 62, said he was following tribal customs and was hunting the animals as food for his mother who was used to eating wild game. The prosecution went up to the Supreme Court which upheld Talum's conviction and jail term of three years and six months for possessing an illegal weapon and hunting protected species.
That ruling sparked anger among Taiwan's aboriginal communities and the Supreme Court then made the highly unusual move of asking the Constitutional Court to make its own ruling. Hunting was once a core way of life for Taiwan's indigenous people who - much like the native populations in Australia and the Americas - were decimated by waves of immigration and have faced a long history of discrimination.
Under current laws, indigenous hunters are only allowed to use homemade guns - something they argue are dangerous and cause injuries - and hunt on festival days. The Constitutional Court has now been asked to rule whether indigenous hunters should be exempted from those laws and will give its decision later.
"We hunters follow the wisdom of our ancestors when going to the mountains to hunt... it's a realisation of co-existence and co-prosperity with all animals in nature," Mr Talum told the court via an interpreter on Tuesday.
Mr Icyang Parod, Taiwan's minister of indigenous affairs, welcomed the court hearing. "We think there can be a balance between the ecological equilibrium and the aboriginal hunting culture," he told reporters. Outside the Constitutional court on Tuesday indigenous activists lit a traditional smoke signal ceremony as they and supporters chanted: "Hunters are innocent, the laws violates the constitution."
Taiwan's multiple indigenous tribes led a comparatively uninterrupted life for thousands of years before immigrants first began arriving from the Chinese mainland in the 17th century. They are an Austronesian people - their languages, cultures and traditions far more closely linked to populations in South East Asia and the Pacific than the Chinese mainland.
They now make up only two per cent of Taiwan's 23 million population and remain highly marginalised, with wages lower than the national average, a higher rate 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 the island's governments had treated aboriginal communities. Indigenous activists welcomed the apology but say there are still core issues of dispute - particularly the loss of ancestral land rights.
Much of that land is now designated national park, leading to clashes over hunting, fishing and foraging in areas where permits are needed.