World's most isolated tribe threatened by poachers

September 20, 2010

The Sentinelese attack outsiders who approach their island. © Indian Coastguard/Survival

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Poachers targeting rich fishing grounds in India’s Andaman Islands are endangering the world’s most isolated tribe.

More than a hundred iIllegal 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 Indian poachers also threaten the survival of the Jarawa tribe, who have only had contact with outsiders since 1998. An Indian poacher and a Jarawa man died in a conflict in the Jarawa’s reserve in 2008.

The Indian coast guard has announced a series of arrests of more than a hundred Burmese poachers since late August, mostly in the vicinity of the Jarawa reserve. However, local Indian 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 road that cuts through the tribe’s land. Survival has 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 today, ‘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 Andamans for about 55,000 years, but if this invasion of their territory continues, their days could be numbered.’

Watch an exclusive interview with a Jarawa man about poachers on his land.

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Notes to the Editors: The Sentinelese are believed to be the world’s most isolated tribe, and have no contact with outsiders.

The neighbouring Bo tribe on the Andaman Islands became extinct in January this year with the death of its last surviving member, Boa Sr.