My colleagues—a good bunch of hardened field biologists and wise policymakers—were mostly indifferent. ''It is a venial breach of the act,'' an academician posted on Facebook. A PhD candidate in conservation biology wrote, ''balance is necessary between conservation and creative films.''
The core fanbase of 'Hawa', the latest hit Bangla film that is behind all this discussion, is even more vocal, visibly angered by the reprisals from Bangladesh Forest Department. 'Hawa' is sued for violating the Bangladesh Wildlife (Conservation and Security) Act 2012.
The film falling somewhere between the psychological horror and thriller genres, presents an uncanny plot—although run-of-the-mill by global standards, but very rare in the Bangladeshi film industry, hence the landslide hype. The main antagonist 'Chan Majhi,' a murderous dacoit disguised as a captain, went into a fishing sortie with his pet bird. At one point, he devoured it—not a yo-ho-ho-and-a-bottle-of-rum blabbering parrot but a starling. Why? You have probably guessed it right. He was stranded on the sea and starving. The movie ended with his death, caused by a cobra bite. The heroine, 'Gulti,' a mysterious gipsy lass, metamorphosed into a snake and avenged her father's death.
The starling shown was a sub-adult common myna, outright extracted from the wild. The snake comes across as evil, likely a CGI-generated one. Live venomous snakes on a sea-faring boat were an unaffordable risk. However, the serpent was stigmatised as per movie tradition; Snakes are to be feared and loathed, and, when encountered, to be killed.
None of these is the actual nucleus of the ongoing heated debate. Should 'Chan Majhi' have combated starvation with the starling? The argument is as intense as wildfire. The guttural scene of gutting a bird was omitted. It was also obvious that cooked poultry had assisted the shot.
The bigger picture lies somewhere else, more troubling and sinister. Humanised depiction of wild animals, vilified or consecrated, has taken its toll on many species since the onset of the film industry. This is not a generalisation, but rather a proven fact. Films can be deadly for biodiversity.
''All 109, barring one, shark-related movies between 1958 to 2019 featured sharks as monstrous creatures,'' as per 2021 study published in Human Dimensions of Wildlife journal of Utah University, USA. So, in the long run, movies like 'Jaws' or 'The Meg' fed deep-rooted problems. Christopher Neff from the University of Sydney, Australia, in a Mongabay report, pointed out three primary misconceptions, ''sharks intentionally bite humans, human-shark encounters are always fatal, and sharks should be avoided and killed at sight.'' The reality is in stark contrast. Another study in the journal Marine Policy highlighted a heart-breaking perspective—every year, we harvest 100 million sharks, and only 12 humans die in return. 30 % of all sharks are fighting for their survival. 'Jaws' triggered fright and an everlasting trend of shark trophy hunting.
Encouraging the sale of exotic pets
Now, let us look at some other movies. The 'Harry Potter' franchise and 'Finding Nemo' showed the opposite, an innocuous, appealing, wholesome version of wildlife. Pigeons are known for mail-delivering. 'Harry Potter' introduced an even more endearing version, in its magical universe, owls were the messengers. Overloading the cuteness of owls boosted thoughts of petting owls—fun for the fans, not for the owls themselves. A 2016 study by the Oxford Brookes University, published in the journal Global Ecology and Conservation highlighted an appalling fact. Based on surveys of only 20 bird markets in Java and Bali—there are many across Indonesia that fester with unchecked wildlife trade and supply any exotic pet you can think of—a dramatic rise in demand for owls was noticed. After the movie reached Indonesia, ''at least 12,000 scops owls'' or 'Pigwidgeon' owned by 'Ron Weasley,' ''are being sold each year.'' That is a toll none can afford.
On the same note, 'Finding Nemo' and 'Finding Dory' fueled the aquarium trade for reef-dwelling fish. Unlike freshwater fishes, more than 95 percent of marine fishes are directly extracted from the wild. For one clownfish, the Nemo, or one blue tang, the Dory, you see in a pet shop, hundreds of others die—most during the catch, the rest in overseas shipping. So much so was the hype that scientists were forced to seek funds to start captive breeding programs for nemos and dories. But captive breeding of marine fishes is still a tricky feat. Wild harvest is easy and cheap, albeit involves gruesome methods like cyanide fishing. Pacific countries are hit hard.
What if 'Hawa' inadvertently contributes to animal abuse in cinema?
Endorsing exotic wildlife for pet keeping comes with another problem. It opens a gateway for the mingling of animal-borne diseases. Covid-19 was the latest example. There are numerous other examples. Avian influenza, Aids and Sars only to name a few.
There are monetary losses too, far greater and unmatched by any box office turnout. Owls are the easiest example. Each individual 'Lokkhi Pecha' (barn owl) saves crops worth 2.5 million taka by keeping rodent populations in check. The number doubles when we consider their role in keeping urban rodents at the bay. In cities like Dhaka, other than owls, there are no natural predators of rats and shrews. So, if we remove owls, will the incurred cost be bearable? If starlings start getting poached, what will be the impact? Who will then stop the disaster?
I will not get into justifying the actions of the Bangladesh Forest Department, suing Hawa for impeding ecosystem services worth 20 crore takas. I will not compare it with the case of Salman Khan, the Bollywood Illuminati who is still facing trial even after decades of killing a threatened antelope.
But it is for sure that featuring wildlife in movies or how stars treat them can have a far-fetching impact. J.K. Rowling, the writer of 'Harry Potter', after the rise in the owl trade, pleaded to ''her fans to think twice before buying a pet owl.'' Can we not expect a similar call from the 'Hawa' crew? That snakes are not to be feared, starlings not to be domesticated. No star in Bangladesh has done this yet.
Finally, the concern has never been about what was eaten or not. We live in a country where wildlife is treated with a kill-on-sight reaction, wildlife trade goes largely unabated, and private menageries exist filled with native wild animals. We must not make unintentional mistakes that can lead to grim consequences.