Updated Friday, Aug. 1, at 9:30 a.m. ET.
An indigenous tribe living near the Brazil-Peru border may be facing violent attacks from illegal loggers and drug traffickers who are exploiting the densely forested region, according to an advocacy group.
After years of living in isolation from the outside world, several young members of this "uncontacted" tribe recently entered a nearby settled community in Brazil. Through interpreters, they told harrowing stories about their encounters in the forests.
"The majority of old people were massacred by non-Indians in Peru, who shot at them with firearms and set fire to the houses of the uncontacted," an interpreter named Zé Correia reported through Survival International, a group that advocates for tribal people's rights. "They say that many old people died, and that they buried three people in one grave. They say that so many people died that they couldn't bury them all and their corpses were eaten by vultures." [See Photos of the Uncontacted Amazon Tribes]
In late June, a few members of the tribe emerged from the forest and voluntarily made contact with Ashaninka people in the village of Simpatia, in Brazil's Acre state. FUNAI, Brazil's indigenous affairs department, released a video clip of this initial contact today (July 31) that shows young tribe members exchanging bananas and other goods.
FUNAI representatives learned that these people had walked several days to Simpatia from their home turf within Peru's borders. Most of the tribe members appeared healthy at first. But after several visits to Simpatia, some showed flu-like symptoms. Earlier this month, seven of them were treated for acute respiratory infections.
Brazilian officials have gleaned that this tribe has had sporadic encounters with non-Indians, which have resulted in "terrible losses," said Fiona Watson, a researcher and field director with Survival International. These indigenous people also had a gun, some screws and other items that they may have purloined from non-Indians, perhaps from a logging camp, Watson told Live Science.
Her organization "is extremely concerned about their health, about possible future attacks, and about the reports from the uncontacted that some of their community were killed at the hands of non-Indians and their homes set on fire," Watson said in an emailed statement. She added that the organization is also worried about the ability of the Brazilian and Peruvian governments to contain a future epidemic in the region. Uncontacted people are particularly vulnerable to diseases, such as malaria and the flu, against which they have no immunity.
"There is an urgent priority to get trained specialist health teams able to go in immediately when any uncontacted appear, and for far greater monitoring of and protection of the territories of uncontacted tribes from invasions," Watson said.
Survival International has called on Peru to investigate the reports of a "massacre" and Brazil to allocate more funds for its uncontacted Indians unit to monitor the region.
Agnes Portalewska, the communications manager for the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based group Cultural Survival, said her organization has been following the story and is concerned, especially because these groups are vulnerable to disease from outsiders.
"Our concern is also with the fact that these incidents get more attention in the media, because of the 'exotic' aspect of the story, and few others make it into the mainstream media," Portalewska wrote in an email to Live Science. She noted that most groups who are considered "uncontacted" live in voluntary isolation and have some, albeit limited, contact with other groups for reasons of trade and marriage.
"Their right to live in isolation should be respected and protected, and states have an obligation to respect, protect and fulfill these rights," Portalewska said.
Earlier this week, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) released an extensive report urging South American governments to preserve the rights of indigenous people who live in voluntary isolation, and are at risk of confrontations with loggers, miners, oil and gas companies, religious missionaries, misguided ecotourism ventures, and drug traffickers.
Editor's note: This article was updated on Friday (Aug. 1) to add comments from Cultural Survival.