People who ignore the warnings not to visit the paradise island home of the most isolated tribe in the world will probably not come back alive.
That’s because the Sentinelese, who have killed several fishermen and an American missionary in the past 20 years, are a fiercely independent people who guard their land against all intruders.
The tribe is one of the planet’s last un-contacted people and live completely separate from the outside world on North Sentinel Island in the Bay of Bengal between South East Asia and India.
North Sentinel is part of the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago that contains many other un-contacted tribes living on islands still covered in wilderness.
Studies carried out on some of the more friendly people in the region have found they are incredibly healthy and have a varied diet with “optimal” nutrition, as well as an incredible knowledge of more than 150 plants and 300 animal species.
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But incursions over the centuries, including from British colonial rule and now from Indian authority control, have meant that some of the native islanders have been all but wiped out by disease spread from the outside world.
Sophie Grig, from the charity Survival International, has been working to help protect the Sentinelese and other incredible peoples on the islands for almost 30 years.
Ms Grig, who is a Senior Research and Advocacy Officer for the organisation, said: “The North Sentinelese, or the Sentinelese, are the most isolated tribe in the world because they live on their own island.
“They’ve made a very clear choice to not be contacted and that must be respected, for their own survival, and under international law. They must choose if and when they want contact.
“There are many uncontacted peoples around the world including many in South America and Indonesia and on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, but all of them have neighbours of some sort of other, except for the Sentinelese.
“They have no neighbours and no contact, other than the rare intruders that attempt to land. Clearly, the Sentinelese are keeping themselves to themselves through their own choice.
“Like all un-contacted peoples in the world today, they are making an active choice to resist contact, and the Sentinelese make this clearer than most by defending their island vigorously from intruders.
“They showed that in 2018 when the missionary John Allen Chau went to their island, and over the years too when people have tried to land they’ve been firmly rebuffed.
“In 2006 we know that some fishermen put down an anchor that came loose and they were washed up on the shore and were killed. But this encounter could have also been very dangerous for the Sentinelese because they could have caught something from those fishermen.”
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Ms Grig, who said she is currently banned from visiting the region by the local authorities, said one of the biggest dangers for an un-contacted tribe meeting people from the rest of the world was the devastating effect of disease.
She said: “We know these diseases can wipe out 70 to 90 percent, and sometimes the whole tribe, for the Sentinelese, the reason they are so clearly strong and healthy is that they have managed to defend themselves from outside contact and the dangers of disease.”
Survival International first campaigned to protect the Sentinelese in the 1990s, as well as fighting for the rights of other tribes such as the Jarawas who were under threat.
During British colonial rule of the region before the Second World War, several tribes had been decimated by disease after they had been contacted.
Ms Grig said despite the lessons from the past the authorities in charge in the 90s also wanted to make contact.
She said: “The Andaman authority and government’s plan was to forcibly settle them, make contact, teach them agriculture, all the things that the government perceived would be giving them development.
“They were doing this despite the fact these people were clearly very happy as they were, and healthy and strongly defending their territories.
“The people that had already had this done to them in the past were utterly devastated by disease. The Great Andaman people after this happened went from between 5,000 to 7,000 to just 19 at the lowest time as a result of British rule.”
Survival International’s campaign, inlcuding legal challenges and testimony from expert witnesses, and lobbying from other groups successfully persuaded the government the Sentinelese, Jarawas and other isolated tribes on the islands should not be interfered with.
But Ms Grig warned threats remain for all the peoples, from random adventurers and fishermen, but also from the authorities.
She continued: “Even in the 20 years or so the Jarawas have had a little bit more contact, seeing people move along the trunk road and so on, none of them have wanted to move out of the forest or make contact, they very much want to stay on their land and hunt and gather and continue their way of life.
“All of the tribes are under threat still from poachers and people fishing their waters, from people trying to take the resources from their land. The Sentinelese rely on these waters for hunting and less fish and resources could have dire consequences for them.
“Another people, the Shompen, have had some contacted but many of them are like the Sentinelese and don’t have contact.
“Unfortunately there is a massive plan called The Great Nicobar project, which is to build a mega port, and a new city and an international airport, a defence station and an industrial park on this tiny island which has got these uncontacted Shompen on it.
“The ultimate plan is to bring 650,000 settlers to this island which makes it impossible to imagine the Shompen can survive that onslaught and destruction of the forests to build the airport and port and city.”
To help Survival International in their work you can donate, or visit their webpage to find out more.
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