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Last Updated: Wednesday, 2 March, 2005, 14:03 GMT
Andaman tribe chief seriously ill
By Subir Bhaumik
BBC News, Port Blair, Andaman Islands

Chief Jerake
Doctors say they are trying their best to save Chief Jerake's life
The chief of an indigenous tribe in India's eastern archipelago of Andaman and Nicobar Islands is seriously ill.

Doctors say Chief Jerake was brought to the hospital unconscious last week and his condition has since deteriorated.

The total population of the Great Andamanese - one of the five aboriginal groups in the archipelago - has fallen to below 40 now.

Anthropologists fear the tribe may soon become extinct.

When admitted to the hospital last week he was diagnosed to be suffering from epilepsy. Doctors now say they suspect some damage to his brain as well.

Chief Jerake, about 60, is said to have been a chronic alcoholic for several years. "His physical condition has worsened primarily due to heavy drinking," said Dr Rattan Chandra Kar, who is treating Chief Jerake at a hospital in the capital Port Blair.

He said Chief Jerake had been put on oxygen because he was suffering some respiratory distress. Dr Kar said they were trying their best to save him.

Facing extinction

Anthropologists say the Great Andamanese are descendants of the world's first human. A century ago, they numbered more than 5,000.

Nicobari boy holding some food
This boy is one of the 900 people left in the five aboriginal tribes
But hundreds were killed in battles with the British who colonised the islands. More continued to die of diseases contracted from intermingling with settlers from the mainland.

With barely 40 people left, every death in the tribe is viewed with concern.

Health experts say one major threat to the tribe has come from tobacco and alcohol, which they started to consume after coming in contact with settlers from the mainland.

Smoking and drinking may have been the cause behind several epidemics that have brought down their numbers drastically over the years, they say.

In all, the five aboriginal tribes in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands number about 900 now.

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