The Heroes of Andaman
Poachers targeting rich fishing grounds in India’s Andaman Islands are endangering the world’s most isolated tribe.
More than a hundred illegal fishermen from Burma have been arrested in recent weeks. Fourteen were fishing off North Sentinel Island, home to the Sentinelese tribe, who attack anyone approaching their island. Members of the tribe killed two fishermen in 2006.
Burmese and local poachers also threaten the survival of the Jarawa tribe, who have only had contact with outsiders since 1998. A local poacher and a Jarawa man died in a conflict in the Jarawa’s reserve in 2008. The Jarawas denounce poachers who invade their land.
The Indian Coast Guard has announced a series of arrests of more than a hundred Burmese poachers since late August this year, mostly in the vicinity of the Jarawa reserve. However, local poachers are rarely targeted.
Poachers catch turtles and dive for lucrative sea cucumber for the Chinese market, and also hunt in the Jarawa’s forest. Local poachers often enter by the illegal Andaman Trunk Road that cuts through the tribe’s land. Many NGOs like Survival International have repeatedly urged the local authorities to close the road, but it remains open.
Local sources say the scale of the problem is much greater than the recent arrests suggest, with most poachers going undetected. Both the Jarawa and the Sentinelese are hunter-gatherers, and theft of the fish and animals in their territory endangers their food supply. Poachers also risk introducing common diseases to the tribes. The Sentinelese are especially at risk: their complete isolation means they are likely to have no immunity to diseases such as flu and measles.
Survival campaigner Sophie Grig said recently, “The Indian Coast Guard’s recent crackdown shows they are taking the poaching problem seriously, but it also reveals the huge scale of the threat. The Jarawa and the Sentinelese have lived on the Andaman Islands for about 55,000 years, but if this invasion of their territory continues, their days could be numbered.”
The Sentinelese are believed to be the World’s Most Isolated Tribe, and have had no contact with outsiders. The neighboring Bo tribe of the Great Andamanese group on the Andaman Islands became extinct in January this year with the death of its last surviving member, Boa Sr.
Boa Sr, the last surviving member of the Bo Tribe, who expired in January this year.
The Sentinelese live on their own small island, North Sentinel, and continue to resist all contact with outsiders, attacking anyone who comes near. They hit the headlines in the wake of the 2004 Tsunami when a member of the tribe was photographed firing arrows at a helicopter.
A Sentinelese man, as seen in the picture above, aimed his bow and arrow at an Indian Coast Guard helicopter as it flew over his island on Dec. 28, 2004, surveying for Tsunami damage. Circumstantial evidence suggests that these indigenous tribes used precious ancient know-how to save themselves from the catastrophic Tsunami.
Like the Jarawa, the Sentinelese hunt and gather in the forest, and fish in the coastal waters. They live in long communal huts with several hearths, and use outrigger canoes to travel the seas around their island.
The Government of India has made several unsuccessful attempts to establish ‘friendly’ contact with the Sentinelese. According to the NGOs, contacting the tribe would almost certainly have tragic consequences, as their isolation makes them very vulnerable to diseases to which they have no immunity. The government now says it will make no further attempt to contact them.
Since the coastal waters around the Jarawa reserve have been so heavily used by poachers, these illegal fishermen are now turning their attention to the waters surrounding North Sentinel. In 2006, members of the Sentinelese tribe killed two fishermen who had illegally approached their island.
The Sentinelese are a real inspiration - Heroes not only of the Andaman Islands, but of the entire Indigenous world. They even seem to be heroes to the mainstream. The amazing photographs in the media of the warriors firing upon a helicopter were meant to elicit pity for the Sentinelese, "left behind" by the modern world.
The articles backfired. Fervent responses from indigenous and non-indigenous readers alike indicated more envy than pity. One reader, claiming to be sick of ‘civilization’ with nothing but work and bills and sex and worry, said, "I wish I was on the beach with my bow and arrow."