A United States tourist has been killed by members of an endangered Indian Ocean tribe after he attempted to go to their restricted island, Indian police said.
John Allen Chau, a 26-year-old Christian missionary, was killed last week on North Sentinel Island, home to the Sentinelese people, police said on Wednesday.
Visits to the island, which is part of the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago, are heavily restricted by the government and seven fishermen have been arrested for facilitating Chau’s visit there, according to Dependera Pathak, director-general of Andaman and Nicobar islands.
“It was a case of misdirected adventure,” Pathak said.
Chau was apparently shot and killed by arrows, but the cause of death can’t be confirmed until his body is recovered, Pathak told The Associated Press news agency.
In an Instagram post, Chau’s family said it was mourning him as a “beloved son, brother, uncle and best friend to us.”
They also described him as a Christian missionary, wilderness emergency technician, football coach and mountaineer.
“He loved God, life, helping those in need, and he had nothing but love for the Sentinelese people,” the family said, adding they forgave Chau’s killers.
Pathak, the police chief, said Chau had made two or three other trips to the island from November 15, making contact with the tribe, but always returning to his boat.
He told the fisherman on November 16 that he would not come back from the island and instructed them to return home and pass some handwritten notes he had made to a friend. The next morning the fisherman saw his body being dragged across a beach and buried in the sand, Pathak said.
Chau’s social media posts identify him as an adventurer and explorer.
In a 2015 interview with The Outbound Collective, an online community of adventure travellers, Chau was asked what was on the top of “his must-do adventure list right now”.
“Going back to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in India is on the top – there’s so much to see and do there!” Chau replied.
The US consulate in Chennai, the capital of southern Tamil Nadu state, said it was aware of the reports concerning a US citizen in the islands, but spokesperson Kathleen Hosie declined to comment further due to privacy considerations.
Police surveyed the island by air on Tuesday, and a team of police and forest department officials used a coast guard boat to travel there on Wednesday and another trip was planned on Thursday.
Police officer Vijay Singh said Thursday morning that police were exploring their options since they cannot go directly to the restricted area.
‘Fear of outsiders is understandable’
Survival International, an organisation that works for the rights of tribal people, said the killing of the American should prompt Indian authorities to properly protect the lands of the Sentinelese.
“The British colonial occupation of the Andaman Islands decimated the tribes living there, wiping out thousands of tribespeople, and only a fraction of the original population now survives. So the Sentinelese fear of outsiders is very understandable,” Stephen Corry, the group’s director, said in a statement.
“This tragedy should never have been allowed to happen,” he said, adding that Chau had not only put himself in danger but also the welfare of the tribe, which has had had very limited contact with the outside the world.
“It’s not impossible that the Sentinelese have just been infected by deadly pathogens to which they have no immunity, with the potential to wipe out the entire tribe,” Corry said.
Shiv Viswanathan, a social scientist and a professor at Jindal Global Law School, said North Sentinel Island was a protected area and not open to tourists. “The exact population of the tribe is not known, but it is declining.”
The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are a group of islands at the juncture of the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. In addition to the protected tribes, the islands also host a large presence of the Indian Navy with sensitive installations.
The tribe made headlines after a tsunami devastated the region in 2004. Members of the tribe shot arrows at navy helicopters that went to check on their wellbeing.
Poachers are known to fish illegally in the waters around the island, catching turtles and diving for lobsters and sea cucumbers. Tribespeople killed two Indian fishermen in 2006 when their boat broke loose and drifted onto the shore.