TAIPEI, Taiwan — Taiwan’s Constitutional Court on Friday upheld several key provisions of two laws that restrict hunting, in a setback to the island’s Indigenous rights movement.
Although the court struck down some parts of the laws — including a rule that would require hunters to apply for permits — it declined to overhaul the restrictions altogether, stating that Indigenous hunting culture had to be balanced against the need to protect the environment and wildlife.
“The Constitution recognizes both the protection of Indigenous peoples’ right to practice their hunting culture and the protection of the environment and ecology,” chief justice Hsu Tzong-li said on Friday. “Both fundamental values are equally important.”
Conservationists and animal rights activists welcomed the decision. In March, 57 animal rights groups in Taiwan issued a joint statement, arguing that protecting hunting culture was not comparable to guaranteeing the right to hunt freely.
“Non-human animal creatures and people are a community with a shared future,” several animal groups said in a joint statement on Friday.
The court’s decision centered on a 2013 case against a member of the Bunun, one of 16 officially recognized Indigenous groups in Taiwan, who had been convicted of using an illegal shotgun to kill protected species.
The 62-year-old man, Talum Suqluman, also known as Tama Talum, was sentenced to three and a half years in prison. He appealed the decision, arguing that he had followed tribal customs to hunt animals for his ailing mother, and a court suspended the sentence in 2017.
But Mr. Talum continued to fight the conviction, and the case went to the Constitutional Court, which reviewed whether the laws unfairly infringed on the rights of Indigenous people to hunt. Activists have pointed out that the Indigenous peoples of Taiwan hunted and fished with little interference for thousands of years until settlers from mainland China and elsewhere began arriving in the 17th century.
Under the current laws, Indigenous people are allowed to carry out small hunts but only using homemade guns and traps, which are sometimes unsafe. They must obtain prior approval and they are banned from killing protected species, including leopard cats and Formosan black bears.
Following the announcement, Indigenous rights activists outside the courthouse voiced their disappointment.
“The hunters are innocent!” they chanted. “Give us back our freedom to hunt!”
It was not immediately clear if under Friday’s ruling, Mr. Talum would be required to serve out his sentence. But shortly after the announcement, Mr. Talum vowed to continue hunting.
“Hunting is the culture of us Indigenous people,” Mr. Talum told reporters on Friday from his home in the eastern city of Taitung. “How could you wipe out our hunting culture?”
Taiwan has 580,000 Indigenous residents, or about 2 percent of the population of 23 million, the majority of whom are ethnic Han people.
The movement to address discrimination and other longstanding social and economic problems faced by Indigenous peoples in Taiwan emerged in the 1990s, part of a broader international push for Native rights. Such causes have since gained ground as the island increasingly seeks to carve out an identity that’s distinct from mainland China.
In 2016, President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan offered a formal apology to Indigenous peoples for centuries of “pain and mistreatment,” and said that she would take concrete steps to rectify a history of injustice.
The rights movement has lately centered on Mr. Talum’s case, which many activists see as linked to broader issues of Indigenous land rights and self-governance. They say that the government’s laws restricting hunting are unnecessary since Indigenous hunting culture is already circumscribed by a complex web of taboos and rituals.
Experts said the ruling on Friday reflected the government’s lack of understanding of Indigenous culture.
“This explanation restricts the Indigenous right to hunt from the cultural perspective of non-Indigenous peoples,” Awi Mona, a professor of Indigenous law at National Dong Hwa University in the eastern city of Hualien said in an interview.
Taiwan’s Supreme Court had dismissed Mr. Talum’s appeal in 2015, but in 2017 it granted an extraordinary appeal to have the case referred for constitutional interpretation. Mr. Talum did not serve any jail time.
“This outcome was a little unexpected,” Hsieh Meng-yu, Mr. Talum’s lawyer said in an interview after the court ruling was announced. “We thought the Indigenous rights movement would keep moving forward — we didn’t think that there would suddenly be this decline.”
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