Bengaluru: Two India-centric episodes of the popular wildlife show Man vs Wild, featuring superstars Akshay Kumar and Rajinikanth as guests, have angered environmentalists because they have been shot in a protected Karnataka forest area off-limits for tourists.
Parts of the episodes in question were shot in the Bandipur National Park and Tiger Reserve — while Kumar shot in the forest for four hours Thursday, Rajinikanth filmed it for six hours Tuesday.
Bandipur is a popular tourist destination, but there are areas that are completely off-limits in order to not disturb local wildlife. Environmentalists allege that the decision to allow filming exposed a sensitive area to threats like forest fire, but the state government dismissed the criticism.
ThePrint reached Karnataka Forest Minister C.C. Patil for comment but he didn’t respond to repeated calls and texts.
Principal chief conservator of forests Punati Shridhar, however, said the permission was granted in consultation with the Union Ministry for Environment and Forest as well as the National Tiger Conservation Authority, which oversees tiger conservation in India. The show, he said, would help put Bandipur on the world map.
Man vs Wild in India
Once used as a hunting park by the maharajas of the erstwhile state of Mysore, Bandipur was declared a tiger reserve in 1973 under Project Tiger as India woke up to its dwindling population of big cats amid threats from game hunters and poachers.
The forest area where Bandipur lies is part of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, which has the largest tiger population in India. The reserve also includes the forests of Nagarahole, Wayanad, Mudumalai and Sathyamangalam across Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
Man vs Wild, a show aired on Discovery Channel, made its debut in 2006. It sees host Bear Grylls and his guests overcome extreme challenges in the wild, like beating hunger by eating insects.
The show hit headlines in India last year as PM Narendra Modi was invited as a guest on the show.
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Off-limits for tourists
The controversy around Kumar and Rajinikanth centres on the fact that the episodes were partly shot in the Kalkere and Moolehole areas, a core forest region in the park where even tourists are not allowed.
Environmental activists are up in arms against what they describe as the Karnataka government’s “insensitivity” in granting permission for a shoot in Kalkere and Moolehole, which host a large tiger population.
They claim the shoot could have not just endangered and disturbed the animals, but also ignited forest fires — a constant threat at Bandipur — that would have spread quickly due to the prevailing dry conditions.
Karnataka topped the list of forest fires reported in 2018, with 77 reported conflagrations, followed by Maharashtra (34), according to the Forest Survey of India.
Just last year, a massive forest fire raged through the Bandipur park, spread over 87,400 hectares, between 21 and 25 February. Satellite data from the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) showed the fire spread over nearly 4,400 hectares of forest land.
“This is totally unacceptable and unpardonable,” Braj Kishore Singh, former head of the Karnataka Forest Force, told The Print.
“By allowing such shoots for entertainment, they have opened the floodgates for people to violate rules. Studies have shown that tigers are absent where there is a presence of human settlements and livestock,” he added.
“This is an inviolate space and just because it is Rajinikant and Bear Grylls, it does not mean you allow such violations.”
Singh recalled an instance dating back to 2008 during his stint as principal chief conservator of forests (wildlife), when the then chief minister B.S. Yediyurappa’s office requested permission to allow a film shoot inside another ecologically sensitive forest area, Nagarhole.
“I explained to the principal secretary to the chief minister… how it would violate forest rules and why permission should be denied. They accepted my version and did not allow them,” he added.
Section 38 (0) of the Wildlife Protection Act 1972, Singh said, clearly outlined tiger reserves as inviolate spaces with no place for any human activity inside.
“The government is showing double standards. On the one hand, they have been asking tribals in the Bandipur forest to clear away as it affects the tiger reserve… and, on the other, they have been giving it away for entertainment?” added Joseph Hoover, a Bengaluru-based wildlife activist.
“These are areas that should have absolutely no interference. If they wanted to shoot, why not do it in a tourist zone, why did they have to use the inviolate space?” he said.
“Tomorrow, anybody else who has power or money will say they want to shoot in these areas, will the government allow it? All NGOs working with wildlife in Karnataka are now writing to the government seeking an explanation. We are stakeholders of our environment too,” Hoover added.
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Critics ‘don’t know what they’re talking about’
The Karnataka forest authorities have denied the criticism, saying the shoot did not affect wildlife or forest cover. The crew, they added, was banned from using fireworks, heavy lights and generators.
Principal chief conservator of forests Punati Shridhar, the head of the state forest department, said “conservationists don’t know what they are talking about”.
“They are doing this to remain in the limelight… Where are these conservationists when we fight forest fires, when we are taking steps towards conservation,” Shridhar asked.
“Tell me what rule has been violated? Let them mention [it] and I will take action on that basis.”
Shridhar said the state had “taken permissions from the Ministry of Environment and Forest and the NTCA”. “We did it as there was a foreigner involved and the shooting was to take place in Bandipur,” he added.
“Otherwise, the chief wildlife warden is empowered to give permissions too… We felt it will help put Bandipur on the world map. This documentary will be aired throughout the globe and that is a positive impact… to promote Karnataka’s biodiversity.”
However, Hoover made light of the justification. “They used drones and heavy vehicles, which is equally harmful,” he said.
Shridhar dismissed this argument too, saying the forest department also employed drones to keep a watch on tigers and curtail poaching.
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