Before heading into Taiwan's mountains with his homemade rifle, Indigenous hunter Tama Talum often chants prayers and makes offerings of rice wine and betel nut to the spirits.

Talum, 62, was one of the hundreds from his Bunun tribe taking part last week in Mala Hodaigian, an annual festival that honours both hunters and wild game.

But a shadow hung over this year's festivities because of a landmark court ruling set for Friday.

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At stake is both Talum's freedom - and whether the current hunting limitations placed on Taiwan's Indigenous communities are discriminatory and unconstitutional.

"For Indigenous people, hunting is about survival and it's our culture," he told AFP from his bucolic home in Taiwan's southern Taitung county, where the retired tow truck driver now grows vegetables and looks after his 99-year-old mother.

Talum's legal turmoil started eight years ago when he went to hunt food for his mother, who he said was used to eating wild game.

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He was arrested for killing a Reeves's muntjac and a Formosan serow with a modified rifle, and charged with possessing an illegal weapon and hunting protected species.

He was sentenced to three and a half years in prison.

The prosecution sparked anger among Taiwan's Indigenous communities, who have begun to push back at the modern legal restrictions that have chipped away at their traditions.

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As Dahu, a 42-year-old hunter and friend of Talum's, put it: "The court should recognise hunting is our culture and it's not a crime."

Strict limits

Under current legislation, Indigenous hunters are only allowed to use homemade guns - which they argue are dangerous and have caused injuries - and hunt on festival days with prior approval.

Talum's prosecution wound its way to the Supreme Court, which upheld his conviction and jail term.

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But judges also made the unusual move of asking the Constitutional Court to step in and assess whether current regulations breach the rights of Indigenous communities.

A ruling by the same court in 2017 paved the way for Taiwan to become the first place in Asia to legalise gay marriage.

Activists hope a ruling in their favour could begin to redress some of the legal and social restrictions placed on Indigenous communities.

The campaign has alarmed some animal rights activists and conservationists.

But Indigenous groups say a balance can be struck.

"We hunt game to eat, not to sell them to make money," said Talum, who started hunting with his father aged 11.

"It's not like we go hunting every day or try to wipe out the animals."

Austronesian cultures

Taiwan's 16 recognised 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 Southeast Asia and the Pacific than China.

Much like the native populations in Australia and America, Taiwan's first people were decimated by waves of immigration and have faced a long history of discrimination both under Japanese colonial rule and later the Kuomintang dictatorship.

They now make up only 2.5% of Taiwan's 23 million population and remain marginalised, facing lower wages, higher rates of unemployment and poorer health indicators.

Taiwan has morphed into one of Asia's most progressive democracies in recent decades and there is growing recognition that past wrongs must be righted.

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.

'Mutual respect'

The campaign for traditional hunting rights is seen as a legal test for Indigenous culture.

Hunting skills are passed down through the generations. But Talum says his prosecution has already dissuaded some youngsters.

"When we go to the mountains we are in high spirits but we are anxious when we get down," he said.

Husung, a 28-year-old professional soldier and Bunun tribe member said he was torn between wanting to follow customs and worrying about being apprehended for hunting.

And he fears hunting could fade away as so many other Indigenous customs did.

"How can we pass down the tradition to the next generations if we are afraid to go hunting?"

Piya, a 27-year-old dance instructor from the Paiwan tribe, said a legal victory for hunting would only be a start because their communities "still suffer various injustices" including the loss of ancestral land rights.

Much of what was once tribal territory is now designated national parkland in Taiwan, leading to regular disputes over hunting, fishing and foraging in areas where permits are needed.

"We are the original masters of Taiwan and we want mutual respect," Piya said.

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