The uncomfortable truth about 'human safaris' on the Andaman Islands
It has been reported today that Indian authorities have been urged to abandon attempts to retrieve the body of John Allen Chau - the American man who was murdered on North Sentinel Island. His killers were members of the most secluded tribe in the world, who attacked him with bows and arrows.
A Christian missionary and self-styled adventure blogger, John Allen Chau had visited the island before. But as one of the few remaining uncontacted peoples on the planet, the North Sentinelese saw his presence as a threat.
However, as one of the Andaman Islands, North Sentinel isn’t quite as remote as one might have thought. Along with the Nicobar Islands, they are Indian territory and have seen an influx of migrants from mainland India. Crystal-clear waters, white sand and lush rainforests make these islands highly desirable and tourism in the area has exploded.
The likely fate of the North Sentinelese can be seen on the nearby Middle Andaman - the largest of the islands. Here, the infamous Great Andaman Trunk Road enters a national park which is home to the Jarawas.
These traditional tribespeople have had little to no contact with the outside world, other than with the truckloads of tourists which crawl along the road. In what critics refer to as a “human zoo”, visitors have been known to pass the tribespeople candy and - in one especially upsetting video - persuade the women to dance.
As the creature comforts of the modern world erode their way of life, some of the tribespeople have been said to smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol. But these are by no means the most harrowing tales of their plight.
Until 1998, the Jarawa people were completely isolated and would attack outsiders with steel-tipped arrows. Thought to originate from Africa, they have inhabited the island for hundreds of years. However, in the last two decades, a lot has changed for this Paleolithic tribe.
The murder of a fair-skinned Jarawa baby in 2015 highlighted both that outsiders were fostering relationships with tribespeople and that the Jarawa were outside of the law. This came just one year after reports of sexual abuse and kidnap of Jarawas being carried out by other islanders. (Following this incident, eight girls were rescued and seven kidnappers arrested.)
Slowly, more rules and regulations have appeared as the world has reacted to the exploitation of the Jarawas. Tourists are now no longer allowed to give food to or interact with the Jarawas. This is mainly due to the fear that pathogens to which they have no immunity could wipe out the entire tribe.
In response to mounting international pressure, Indian authorities have pledged to cease the “safaris”. However, the route is still open and tour operators are continuing to use it. While negative press is affecting the way that these companies present their information, seeing the Jarawas is a huge pull.
The Jarawas also live on South Andaman and Baratang however, the Great Andaman Trunk Road stretches across all the major islands. “Baratang Island is home to the native Jarawa tribe,” states tour operator Tropical Andamans on their website. “Tourists are not permitted to interact with them or bring back memorabilia.”
Despite measures to stem the flow of tourists, construction projects have been proposed alarmingly close to the Jarawas’ land. “In between the road journey you will cross the Habitations of one of the worlds primitive tribes 'The Jarawas' (please don’t take photograph or give any thing to the tribal people),” explains tour operator Flywidus.
“Since 1993 Survival has been lobbying the Indian government to close the Andaman Trunk Road,” states charity Survival International,” believing that only the Jarawa should decide if, when and where outsiders traverse their land.”
“In 2013, following a campaign from Survival and local organization ‘Search’ to ban ‘human safaris’, the Supreme Court banned tourists from travelling along the ATR for seven weeks. After the Andaman Authorities changed their own rules in order to allow the human safaris to continue, the Supreme Court had no choice but to reverse the ban.”
While a proposed sea route is intended to bypass the Jarawas’ land, it highlights the need to ferry tourists through an area which has reached a mythical status. “In October 2017,” Survival International adds, “the Andaman Authorities opened the long-awaited alternative sea route to Baratang. This sea route was supposed to stop the human safaris. But despite the authorities’ commitment to ensuring all tourists would have to use the sea route, very few currently do, and the market in human safaris along the road is flourishing."
North Sentinel, it seems, may suffer a similar fate. Already, there is talk of companies offering tours of the island from armoured boats. Meanwhile, scuba diving operators are planning the exploration of the sunken vessel Primrose, perilously close to the beaches the Jarawas consider theirs to defend. The combination of danger and exclusivity make this a tempting proposition for high-end adventure travellers.
Ultimately, a reliance on tourism to bring money into the area spells out the inevitable. Before long, the North Sentinelese will no longer be an uncontacted tribe. On Sunday, boats attempted to retrieve the body of John Allen Chau but faced a standoff with the North Sentinelese from over 400 foot away (they are accurate with their bows and arrows to 350 foot).
It isn’t the first time the North Sentinelese have killed intruders, as two fishermen were killed in 2006 when they strayed onto the island. However, as the tourist trade continues to encircle their island, it is only a matter of time until it swallows it up.