This Remote Tribe Could Be Wiped Out for the Most Trivial of Reasons

Fears grow that poachers will bring disease to India’s isolated Sentinelese people, all so China can eat sea cucumbers.

A Sentinelese man fires an arrow at an Indian Coast Guard helicopter after the 2004 tsunami. (Photo: Courtesy Indian Coast Guard)

Jan 9, 2015· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

One of the most isolated tribes on the planet could soon find itself at risk because of demand for a Chinese delicacy.

The Sentinelese people live on an island the size of Manhattan in the middle of the Indian Ocean, where they have been isolated from other humans for 60,000 years. The tribe—which probably numbers fewer than 200 people—rejects all communication with the outside world, and the Indian government has an official policy of non-contact. The last time anyone got close was in 2006, when two Indian fishers lost control of their boat and drifted onto the island. The men were immediately killed by the tribe.

That hasn’t stopped fishers from coming to the rich waters that surround North Sentinel Island, part of the Andaman Islands archipelago. Last November, the Indian Coast Guard arrested seven Burmese fishers who were illegally operating near the island. One man reportedly landed on the island before being caught.

Further incursions onto the island could prove deadly, because the Sentinelese tribe probably has no immunity to tuberculosis, measles, the flu, or other modern diseases.

“The Sentinelese are uniquely vulnerable to disease because of their exceptional isolation, and therefore it is essential that they are protected from the incursion of outsiders,” said Sophie Grig, senior campaigner with Survival International, a global organization that aims to protect tribal peoples’ rights.

Why are the fishers so keen on North Sentinel Island? They’re hunting for sea cucumbers, which are then shipped to China and Southeast Asia and sold as a delicacy called bêche-de-mer.

Earlier this year the Zoological Society of India warned that illegal fishing operations were heavily exploiting sea cucumber species around India, a situation that could affect the entire ocean ecology. TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade-monitoring network, estimates that between 20,000 and 40,000 tons of sea cucumbers are shipped out of India every year.

Survival International has called on the Indian government to maintain its non-contact policy with the Sentinelese tribe and protect it from further incursion. Grig said she worries it will go the way of other tribes in the archipelago: “We must not allow the Sentinelese to meet the same fate.”

The fear has precedent.

Another tribe in the region, the Great Andamanese, “was decimated by disease following the British colonization of their islands,” Grig said. Today, only about 50 members of the tribe remain. “They are largely dependent on the government, and alcoholism and TB are rife,” she said.

Other tribes in the region have also suffered. A paper published last year in the journal Current Science detailed how the Great Andamanese, Onge, Jarawa, and Shom Pen tribes have struggled to maintain their way of life “in the midst of globalization.” Tourism, the researchers found, has not only resulted in rampant waste on the islands but has exploited the Jarawa people economically.

One of that paper’s coauthors, Govindasamy Agoramoorthy, a distinguished research professor at Taiwan’s Tajen University, said the Sentinelese must remain protected against a similar future.

“This is the only native tribe we have in India that continue to maintain their eco-friendly native culture without the interference of the greedy developed world,” he said. “Any interactions of illegal fishermen with this unique Sentinelese people will only bring death and destruction through transfer of diseases and emptying their natural resources. The government of India has the responsibility to protect their territory from further infestation by illegal loggers and fishermen, local and foreign.”