Authorities Scout Isolated Island Where US Traveler Was Killed
Law enforcement authorities are attempting to recover the body of an allegedly murdered US traveler and missionary from an isolated island filled with hostile tribespeople. But the officials have encountered several roadblocks, reports say, and they are now said to be assessing whether it will be possible to retrieve the man's remains.
John Allen Chau, 26, was reportedly murdered by the Sentinelese tribespeople, who shot him with arrows as he attempted to preach Christianity to them. The indigenous tribe, who reside on the small North Sentinel Island in the Andaman Sea, remain largely un-contacted to this day and hostile to outsiders approaching their forested isle. A territory of India, the island is off-limits to any visitors by law.
Little is known about the tribe, like their language and cultural customs.
Indian police have attempted to scope the island for Chau's remains by air and by sea. Officials have performed one aerial assessment of the island and two assessments by boat. They have yet to see any indication of Chau's body.
Detectives, along with two fishermen who Chau reportedly hired as guides to take him to the island, approached North Sentinel in a small boat on Saturday, the New York Times reports. When the group of scouts stopped the boat several hundred yards from the island's shore — out of bow and arrow range — and used binoculars to look at the tribe, they saw an odd scene.
A group of Sentinelese were huddled around a spot, apparently guarding something on the island with spears, bows and arrows. Police said it possibly was Chau's body. (The fishermen say they saw Chau's body being dragged and buried on the beach on Nov. 17, a little more than two days after he first approached the island via kayak from the fishermen's dinghy.)
“The Sentinelese were watchful,” Police Chief Dependra Pathak told the Times about the visit on the boat. “They were patrolling the beach, at the same spot John was killed, with weapons. Had we approached, they would have attacked.”
Pathak told The Guardian that the group watched from the boat for about three hours — long enough to see five or six Sentinelese roaming the beach and for authorities to sketch out a site map of the purported murder scene.
“This case is the strangest and toughest in my life,” Pathak told the Times. “We are trying to enter into another civilization’s world.”
Even though the situation with Chau is rare, it is not the first time this has happened. Two fishermen whose boat drifted onto the island in 2006 were murdered by the tribe, and their bodies were never recovered. (The islanders shot arrows at helicopters sent to find the bodies.)
It is unclear how involved the US State Department is in the search for Chau's remains. "We are aware of reports concerning a US citizen in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands," a State Department spokesperson said. "The welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad is one of the highest priorities of the Department of State. When a US citizen is missing, we work closely with local authorities as they carry out their search efforts."
The State Department has a "Level 2: Exercise Increased Caution" travel advisory for US citizens traveling to India, and the department also notes online that Andaman and Nicobar Islands is a restricted/protected area and requires you to apply in advance for a “Restricted Area Permit” from the Indian Government.
Kanchan Mukhopadhyay, an anthropologist previously stationed in neighboring Andaman islands told the Guardian retrieving Chau's body will likely prove to be an impossible task. “It’s a restricted area and the government has decided a hands-off policy,” he said. “One has to go there, land there — and if they resist, what are we going to do?”
Another anthropologist, TN Pandit, who was the first academic to access the Sentinelese in the 1960s, says that the islanders will only become violent if outsiders do not heed their warnings for privacy, which the search for Chau's body may very well do.
"They are not hostile people," Pandit told the Economic Times of India. "They warn; they don’t kill people, including outsiders. They don’t raid their neighbours. They only say, ‘leave us alone.’"