Killing Nature: Where science and religion collude

Last Updated: Fri, Nov 30, 2018 17:16 hrs
John Allen Chau

A misguided traveller or a zealous missionary, John Allen Chau was killed in the process of making contact with the Sentinelese, an Andaman tribe so reclusive they shot at an Indian Coast Guard helicopter that came to check on them after the 2004 tsunami. A couple of centuries ago, even the British gave up trying to make inroads into the island.

Around the same time, the video of a baby bear scaling a cliff to join its mother went viral. A closer look at the video suggests that the cub may have nearly died because of the drone circling around it.

Two pursuits rooted in two seemingly contradictory disciplines – religion and science – and yet they had the same effect: causing danger to the target.

Chau’s family has, clearly in an act of what they consider generosity, “forgiven” his killers.

Chau might well be a killer himself, introducing disease into an island with a dwindling number of native inhabitants, who have no knowledge of vaccines and have had little direct contact with humans from other lands.

Now, the Indian government and diplomats from the United States are trying to figure out how to retrieve Chau’s body from the island.

Reports in the international media are, perhaps unconsciously, borderline racist – at best, the Sentinelese are made to sound like a rare species that must be preserved; at worst, India is made to sound like a land of arrow-wielding savages where Chau receives no sympathy.

The Washington Post, which published extracts from Chau’s journal, wrote:

“Chau’s fateful expedition has caused widespread outrage in Hindu-majority India, where Christian evangelicals are often viewed with anger or suspicion. Critics say his brazen violation of Indian law was selfish and put the fragile tribe at risk – potentially exposing them to modern diseases for which they have no immunity.”

Chau was no evangelist. He was a thrill-seeker with delusions of grandeur as the chosen tool of Jesus Christ. And his violation of law was not simply “selfish” – it was dangerous, it was illegal, and it has caused a crisis. It doesn’t take a “critic” to figure that out. It takes logic.

Now that the Sentinelese are back in focus for the first time since 2004 – when the Coast Guard shot the famous picture of a couple of tribesmen aiming arrows at a relief helicopter – various articles have been published about attempts to contact them.

A British expedition in 1880, with the twin weapons of novelty and gunpowder, managed to take six Sentinelese captives, of whom two died and four were released back into the island.

The Anthropological Survey of India has been sending contact parties from 1967 to 1991, with only the last attempt leading to some success. Subsequently, the Indian government made what seems to be a sensible decision to prevent all contact with the tribe, even for academic purposes, to spare them from diseases from the newer world – which had begun to affect other tribes in the Andamans. The 2011 census counted just fifteen Sentinelese on the island, though the numbers are not foolproof, since the survey was carried out from a distance.

Chau has endangered the health of the tribe, as well as the freedom of the fishermen whom he bribed to take him to the island. Combined with his missionary zeal was the colonising mentality of the new world, the false sense of heroism in trespassing – not much different from the Crusaders of centuries ago. Instead of gunpowder, he carried germs.

And just as his selfish ends may have served to endanger people who were minding their own business, photographer Dmitry Kedrov’s quest for YouTube fame may have caused the near death of a bear cub. His viral video shows a baby bear sliding down and climbing up a steep mountain wall near Russia’s Sea of Okhotsk.

Scientists suggested the noise and sight of the drone may have scared the mother bear into crossing treacherous terrain with her baby. Worse, the drone appears to suddenly fly extremely close to the mother and cub, just as the baby is about to reach safety. The mother bear looks directly at the drone and swats the air, immediately after which the cub slides almost to the bottom of the cliff.

Kedrov claimed the zoom was a post-production effect, but that allows no explanation for the mother bear’s reaction, and the baby’s ability to climb to safety once the drone is some distance away.

As if our encroachment into the wild, with our industries and exploration were not enough, now we come bearing drones and Bibles.

Perhaps this is one area where science and religion can see eye-to-eye – the mission to map the world, to bring every inch of it under “civilisation”. Never mind that most animal species have survived longer than we have. Never mind that a tribe with no knowledge of money or religion has seen an estimated 60,000 summers and winters.

Neither science nor religion believes nature should be free to run its course.

Our exploration of mountains and seas, our digging up of graves and pyramids, our interference with mankind and animals and nature, are all driven by the desire to know, and the desire for credit.

So it is that the tomb of a young pharaoh has been broken into its constituent pieces and put on display.

So it is that smaller and cheaper drones are available for the most ill-informed to venture into wildlife habitats.

So it is that a 26-year-old tourist turned predator into a forbidden island.

The hostility does not come from tribes and terrain and wildlife.

It comes from us, savages with books and coconuts and supermarkets to stock and black markets to exploit.

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Nandini is a journalist and humour writer based in Madras. She is the author of Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage. 

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