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A file photo of a Sentinel tribal. Photo: Reuters
A file photo of a Sentinel tribal. Photo: Reuters

How safe are the Sentinelese really

That the victim was able to go to Sentinel island without detection has the local administration worried

Mumbai: Less than a five-hour boat ride from the capital Port Blair, the North Sentinel Island, home to the indigenous Sentinelese people, has for centuries drawn a mix of awe and fear from settlers on Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

The tragic death of US national John Allen Chau at the hands of the tribesmen has only reaffirmed the long-held view that the tribes are best left alone.

Now, reports suggesting Chau might have succeeded in making some kind of contact with the Sentinelese and the very fact that he was able to make his way to the island without detection have left the local administration worried.

“The Sentinel island is protected by a buffer zone enforced by the Coast Guard and the department of forests," a senior government official said on condition of anonymity. “Security measures are being reviewed to prevent a repeat and additional patrol, both in land and sea, in the vicinity will be done."

Local news reports suggest Chau was perhaps able to make initial contact with the Sentinelese before he was killed under circumstances that are still unclear. The victim, who is said to have left his journal with local escorts, described his experience after meeting the tribesmen. His journal, totalling 13 pages, suggests some Sentinelese were good-natured and others aggressive. “I have been so nice to them why they are so angry and aggressive", he says. “Some natives yelled at me and when I yelled at them in the same way, they laughed."

Over the years, poachers—locals as well as those from Myanmar—have routinely trespassed into tribal territory-

The journal was reportedly handed over to the fishermen escorting him on 16 November. He returned to the island the same night.

The federally administered Andaman and Nicobar Islands removed restrictions on foreigners visiting the 29 inhabited islands in the archipelago. The list also mentions North Sentinel as one of the islands where foreigners are allowed to visit.

The latest incident is not the first such. Over the years, poachers—local settlers as well as those from neighbouring Myanmar—have routinely trespassed into tribal territory, pillaging precious food resources and destroying their natural habitat. Accounts of sexual assault of tribal women by outsiders are not uncommon either, time and again exposing the vulnerabilities and lapses in the implementation of the government’s “no contact" policy for aboriginal tribes that has been in place since the mid-1990s.

“The challenge for the authorities is now to retrieve the body of the victim, which, according to eyewitness accounts, remains in the island," said another senior official, who did not want to be named. “There is no way that the body can be brought back without a confrontation with the tribes, who are most likely to respond with hostility to any such effort."

“It can cause casualties on both sides, which is especially worrisome as the Sentinelese are one of the most primitive and endangered races on earth," added the second person.

Andaman Sheekha, a regional daily published from Port Blair, reported on Thursday that the local administration was taking measures to retrieve the victim’s body.

Quoting senior police officials, the newspaper said that a recce team was sent on Thursday in a Coast Guard vessel, carrying members of the tribal welfare department and the department of forests.

“At this point of time, keeping in view the sensitivity and character of the uncontacted group, a timeline cannot be given, but yes we are working on it. We are professionally handling it, keeping in view that they are uncontacted group of individuals and aborigines," Dependra Pathak, IPS (Indian Police Service), director general of Andaman and Nicobar Police, told the newspaper.

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