Do you love travel so much that you’d risk your life to visit a tropical island? Anyone attempting to visit North Sentinel Island, located in the Bay of Bengal, does just that.
As a part of the idyllic Andaman and Nicobar Islands archipelago off the coast of India and Myanmar, North Sentinel Island is a lush tropical paradise. However, the native Sentinelese people are under strict protections. Estimates put their population between 50 to 200 people, living in what have been described as “Stone Age” or Neolithic conditions.
Who are the Sentinelese People?
As one of the world’s last uncontacted tribes, very little is known about the Sentinelese way of life or their cultural practices, though long lens photography shows them fishing with spears and warding visitors off with bows and arrows. They have no contact with the outside world and no modern technology, leaving anthropologists and law-makers unsure about what the Islanders know of the world beyond their island. No matter what, it is clear that they want to be left alone.
Despite worries for their safety, the tribe survived the 2004 Asian tsunami, though casualties may have been high due to their location.
Indian law prevents anyone from legally visiting or studying the tribe, but that doesn’t always stop rogue explorers from trying to skirt these rules. However, the consequences can be deadly.
That’s because, in addition to the Indian Navy, North Sentinel Island is also protected by the Sentinelese people themselves. They have been known to shoot arrows at any approaching boats and helicopters to prevent unwelcome visitors from landing ashore.
They have good reason to be wary of outsiders- in the 1980s and ‘90s, armed salvage operators regularly visited the island to strip a shipwreck, and many Sentinelese people were killed in skirmishes. This prompted further protections to be put into place.
Paying the Ultimate Price to Visit North Sentinel Island
Though a five-kilometre exclusion zone is enforced around the island, some people still don’t grasp the consequences of making contact. That’s exactly what happened in 2006, when two crab fishermen, Sunder Raj and Pandit Tiwari, fell asleep and their boat landed ashore.
Fellow fishermen shouted to the men to warn them of the danger, but it was too late. Officials believe they were attacked and killed immediately upon making contact. Shockingly, a week later the Sentinelese strung up the men’s corpses on bamboo hooks and faced them towards the sea in a powerful symbol to outsiders.
More recently, in 2018 an American missionary bribed fishermen to drop him off at the island, dead set on bringing the “word of God” to the Sentinelese people.
John Allen Chau, 26, from Alabama, was an evangelical missionary who believed it was his duty to introduce Jesus to uncontacted tribes. He was warned of the danger to his own life, as well as the fact that contacting the tribe could introduce viruses and infections to which they’d have no immunity.
He visited the island three times, and tried to communicate in the Southern African Xhosa language. He took a waterproof bible with him, which protected his chest as he was shot with a metal tipped arrow during his penultimate visit. Despite this, he claimed that the islanders viewed him with good humour.
On his final visit, he instructed the fishermen to leave without him. The same fishermen then saw the Islanders dragging Chau’s lifeless body down the beach.
Does that tropical paradise holiday still sound appealing?
What are Uncontacted Tribes?
While the Sentinelese are the most famous uncontacted tribe, they certainly aren’t the only ones. Some groups that decline contact are called indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation.
The United Nations estimates that there are between 100 and 200 tribes of uncontacted peoples remaining in the world, with total numbers around 10,000 people. The majority of these people live in Northern Brazil, with laws of varying severity protecting them.