Do we need to ‘save’ the Sentinelese?

The Sentinelese and other tribes of the Andamans are minuscule in number. Will they die out or survive?

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Friday 23 November 2018
An aerial photo of the North Sentinel Island. Credit: Wikimedia Commons An aerial photo of the North Sentinel Island. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Sentinelese of the Andamans are in the spotlight for allegedly killing young American missionary John Allen Chau after he went to their island to spread the Gospel. Among the top concerns now is the question of their survival.

The tribe has been left alone since Independence so that they can be shielded from diseases against which they have not developed any immunity. The country's academic circles have long debated whether to leave members of the tribe alone or open them up to the so-called “civilised world”.

Among the motivations behind this is the fact that the population of the Sentinelese as well as other indigenous groups in the archipelago is minuscule. According to the 2011 Census of India, there were only 15 Sentinelese individuals. But Census officials observed the tribe only from a distance, without actually going to them.

Given their numbers, can the Sentinelese reproduce so that their tribe, culture and lineage last? Or will they go extinct?

In September this year, Trilokinath Pandit, who was the only anthropologist in an Indian government expedition in 1967 to North Sentinel Island and who has written the book “The Sentinelese”, had been interviewed by Down To EarthWe had questioned him about the Census figures among other queries.

Pandit’s reply had been clear: “I do not agree with Census figures, as they are arbitrary, often wrong and without any basis. My own estimate, which is also a guess, has been, and remains 80 to 100. But I have reasons to back it.”

He recalled the 1967 visit: “I was a member of a party of scientists being escorted by armed policemen and unarmed naval men. The tribespeople were on the beach, watching the boat come to the island. There was a large number of them. But there was no reaction or resentment from them. We went about a kilometre inside the forest. They did not come face to face with us, but rather hid in the forest, watching us. After some time, we came upon a large area of forest cleared for a camp. There were 18 small huts, with little fires burning in front of each, fenced off with sticks.

“There was plenty of food material including wild fruits and fish being smoked on the fire. There were bows and arrows lying about. A camp of 18 huts indicates a population of at least 50 to 60 people. This is in 1967. In the 1970s-80s, I saw around 30 to 40 people myself. There is another way of deducting numbers. North Sentinel is small -- about 20 sq miles. As per demographic standards, 20 sq miles of forest surrounded by sea can sustain a population of 100. Even if they were confined just to the forest, it would be 30-40 people,” Pandit had said.

Demographers and geneticists echo Pandit’s views. “The genetic diversity among the populations of the Great Andamanese, Jarawas and Sentinelese has not gone down to the extent that they can become extinct. There still is genetic potential among them,” says V R Rao, ICMR emeritus medical scientist at the genetics department at Hyderabad’s Osmania University.

That is not to say that the Sentinelese and other tribes face no threats. “The Sentinelese are a highly endogamous group. They can be wiped out in two circumstances. Because they are endogamous, there is an accumulation of recessive mutations in them,” says K Thangaraj, Chief Scientist, Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) in Hyderabad.

In exogamy, these mutations are unable to express themselves due to presence of dominant alleles for the same character. “The tribal groups of the Andamans, including the Sentinelese are unlikely to fit this description,” Thangaraj said. In case of an epidemic, the whole population can be wiped out if it does not have protective genes. “Or a natural disaster could wipe them off,” he added.

 “Two of the major threats to them are infections and infant mortality. There are historical records of these tribes falling prey to malaria and recently measles. Their populations are small and fluctuations do occur in their numbers. We don’t find their populations to be increasing over time. There is no replacement. This is because demographic instability has set in,” said Rao.

Can that be overcome? “Yes. But again, there is a problem. What we can do is prevent infant mortality. At least for tribes that now have contacts with the outside world like the Jarawas, the Onge and the Great Andamanese. Unfortunately, there is a lack of data on infant mortality among them,” he said.

What should then be the policy to preserve them?

“We should tailor policies to suit each tribe. Currently, there is a one-size-fits-all policy. For instance, the Sentinelese should be left alone. They can sustain themselves through their forests. In other groups like the Jarawas and the Onge, scientific evaluation should be done for development programmes. For instance, in a hospital for the Onge, I had seen milk powder being given to them, which they were not able to digest. Obesity and a sedentary lifestyle have also set in among them. In another case, a Jarawa boy who was sent to a local school by his parents was sent back by the school authorities, who said they could not even touch him since official policy stated that he had to be left alone. These are the flaws we must address,” Rao added.

According to Ramesh Kumar Aggarwal, another scientist at CCMB, there is no need for outside intervention in the case of either the Sentinelese or the others: “We should not disturb them. When they have survived for so long, they will do so in the future too. Let Nature take its own course.”

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