North Sentinel Island is surrounded by gemstone-blue water, and guarded by rich green mangroves that slope down to a white sandy beach. This tropical paradise, cut off from all civilisation, is shrouded in more mystery than the plot of the US drama Lost.
Located just west of the southern tip of the Great Andaman archipelago, deep in the Bay of Bengal in the Indian Ocean, North Sentinel Island is the most isolated place on earth. Measuring 72km², this tiny island is home to the Sentinelese, the only known tribe of indigenous people left on earth who are yet to make contact with the outside world.
Denis Giles, Editor of the Andaman Chronicle believes that the islander’s continued isolation is natural. “No human would appreciate any outsider to trespass on their property or allow anyone to invade their privacy,” he explains. “So it is quite natural that the Sentinelese, who too are humans, intend to protect their territory by not allowing any outsider to invade their privacy.”
The island hit the headlines in 2006 after the tribe brutally murdered two fishermen who had illegally approached the island. After the incident, a 5km exclusion zone has been imposed around the island, and the Sentinelese have kept a low profile.
The Indian government, who previously tried to establish a relationship with the tribe, have since ceased attempts to make contact. To this day, almost nothing is known about the islanders. An estimate suggests around 150 members remain on the island, but this remains just an educated guess.
“Personally I feel they are best left alone,” explains Denis. “They live in perfect harmony with nature in their territory without any danger from poachers. If they didn’t they would have definitely tried to explore the outside world. They have sufficient fish, wild boars, honey and all the herbs they require for comfortable living.”
Despite this, in recent months fears have begun mounting that the Andaman Administration’s plans for a tourism boom on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands may reverse this, and pose a threat to all four Andaman tribes.
The plans, which are expected to go ahead imminently, will see the construction of a new hotel on an island neighbouring that of the Sentinelese. An offshoot of the existing Barefoot resort, the hotel will be very close to the Jarowa reserve –a nearby island that the Jarowa tribe call home, and perhaps the only buffer left between the Sentinelese and first contact.
Denis believes this “may be a disaster for the Sentinelese.” If the Andaman Administration does not make its tourism guidelines clear, “tourists and curious people may attempt to venture and explore the Sentinelese tribe.”
“If this happens,” he added, “there are all the more chances that the tribe would vanish because of the diseases we would transmit. And perhaps a few of the tourists or curious ones will be killed in the process, which ultimately would result in mass killings of the tribes.”
Survival International, the only international organisation supporting tribal peoples worldwide, are actively campaigning to have the proposed resort moved to a new location further away from the Jarawa tribe.
“The resort is next to a path the Jarawa use regularly as they hunt and gather in the forest, so there is no way Barefoot could avoid putting at serious risk the lives of these extremely vulnerable people,” explains Miriam Ross, Head of Publicity.??“One has to wonder why Barefoot is building a hotel so close to the Jarawa,” she adds, “if it is not to allow tourists the opportunity to intrude into their lives. It will increase the considerable pressure on the Jarawa and their land and risk exposing them to diseases to which they have no immunity, and to alcohol, which has seriously harmed other tribes.”
Barefoot claims that ‘sustainable and socially responsible tourism development’ is core to its philosophy. Founded in 1969, with supporters in 82 countries, Survival works for tribal peoples’ rights in education, advocacy and campaigns and believes that public opinion is the most effective force for change.
Survival’s Stamp It Out campaign aims to challenge racist descriptions, however unwitting, of tribal peoples in the media by eradicating terms like ‘stone age’ and ‘primitive’ being used to describe them. They consider this terminology to be both incorrect and dangerous, as it reinforces the idea that they have not changed over time and that they are backward.
Such labels are often used to justify the persecution or forced ‘development’ of tribal peoples, say Survival. The results can be poverty, alcoholism, prostitution, disease and death.
“At Survival we continue to emphasise that there should be no further attempts to contact the Sentinelese,” says Miriam. “[We are] urging the administration of the Andaman Islands to adhere to this by putting a stop to poaching around the island which lead to the deaths of two fishermen in 2006.
“This is why it is vital that we allow the Sentinelese to live in peace on their island. Any human contact will ultimately lead to tragic consequences on both sides,” explains Miriam.
What we know of the Sentinelese can be summed up in a few lines. The Sentinelese are defined by their darker skin and ‘peppercorn’ hair, qualities which are more commonly found across the continent of Africa. They appear to be markedly taller on average than other Andamanese peoples, which include the Onge, Great Andamanese and Jarawa tribes on neighbouring islands. They are typically above average human size in males (1.85 m/6 ft) and of average size in females (1.6 m/5.4 ft).
They tend to live in families of 3 to 4 people within shelter type huts with no side walls although some appear to live in larger communal dwellings which are more elaborately constructed, with raised floors and partitioned family quarters.
Living in a predominantly hunter-gather society, the Sentinelese subsist through hunting wild pigs, fishing for turtles, as well as collecting forest fruits and vegetables. They are equipped with javelins and flat bows – with superb accuracy against human sized targets of up to 100 metres. They also have three varieties of arrows, used for fishing, hunting, and un-tipped ones for shooting warning shots, which they most famous sent showers of at helicopters flying over the island in 2004. It’s through encounters such as these that we have learnt this information: and also how we know that they require us to respect their privacy.
With plans for the expansion of tourism on the Andaman Islands, the future of this privacy is unclear. For the Sentinelese, North Sentinel Island is, as Denis describes, the “perfect place where they can live in harmony with nature.” If they are forced to share that place with the rest of us, this paradise can soon become their undoing.
For more information on Survival International’s campaign visit www.survivalinternational.org/stampitout