A lush green, dense forest lies hidden in the Brahmagiri mountain range of the western ghats in Karnataka’s Kodagu (Coorg) district. This 300-acre spread houses a rich variety of indigenous trees and plants with civet cats, otters, lesser loris, leopards, Asian elephants, Royal Bengal Tigers and numerous other species of animals and birds, even rare, threatened ones. But the most surprising bit about it all is that just two decades ago, most of this area was a denuded wasteland. Until Pamela and Anil Malhotra, a couple with a true passion for the environment came along. Homegrown reporter, Rhea Almeida, caught up with the pair to hear the story of how they turned 300 acres of ‘wasteland’ into a gorgeous sanctuary in Coorg.
“We’ve always loved nature,” says Pamela Malhotra, who built the Save Animals Initiative (SAI) sanctuary piece by piece along with her husband Dr Anil Malhotra. As a private wildlife sanctuary, this vast rainforest protects the hot-spot of biodiversity found in Kodagu with minimal human interference, letting nature take its beautiful course.
Pamela excitedly regales the tale of a small-clawed river otter. “They’re very endangered,” she says. The species, usually found in bigger river systems, is hunted for its pelts and often caught in the nets of fishermen. They’re rather wary mammals, and the Malhotras knew them as such. “We had the most wonderful experience,” starts Pamela, as she describes the scene as Anil and she was sitting atop two rocks in the middle of the river within the sanctuary.
The tiny head of a river otter popped out of the water, and the couple was delighted at the rare sighting. After a few seconds, the head popped back in, and they thought that was the end of it. Suddenly, the head appeared again with another, and the two stared at the Malhotras for a few seconds before climbing out of the river and walking towards the thicket of trees. “It was almost like they started talking to each other,” Pamela laughs, describing how the two otters were almost having an emphatic conversation before ambling back into the water. This is only one of the many amazing experiences the duo has had, living amidst nature’s creatures, away from urban life and technology.
Having grown up in a valley at Dehradunlife’s Doon School, Anil’s love for the environment came right from childhood. As for Pamela, she grew up constantly surrounded by a large number of wooded estates in New Jersey, or as she calls it, “back when it was rural New Jersey”.
In 1986, Anil’s father passed away. As Pamela and her husband made their way to Haridwar to spread the ashes, they fell in love with the Himalayas. For 10 years, they lived amidst the fresh mountain air of the Uttar Kashi region’s forests, and wanted to build a sanctuary to preserve the country’s natural beauty. However, land ceiling laws in the region allow only 12 acres to be owned by one family, so their dreams couldn’t be realised in the Himalayas.
Anil then travelled to the south of India and made his way across Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and even Goa in search of land. Eventually, they found that Karnataka’s land laws fit their requirements. Pamela elaborates, “If a piece of land has been deemed as a plantation, and has a coffee or cardamom certificate, it doesn’t fall under the Land Ceiling Act.”
The couple then found 55 acres of land in Kodagu, owned by a man named Subaya, that was on the verge of being foreclosed. Crops couldn’t grow there due to the high level of rainfall, and he was going to lose everything. As Anil took care of all the permissions required, negotiated a deal, and bought the whole 55 acres, the proceeds settled Subaya’s outstanding payments, and everyone walked away happy.
Over the next decade or so, the couple secured more land in the area, primarily acres that farmers had abandoned because of the high rainfall that isn’t conducive to a healthy crop growth. “It was considered wasteland to previous owners,” Pamela confides. The land they acquired ranged from denuded, deforested areas to expanses of shrubbery with birds and small mammals to land covered with the water-loving cardamom crop, and all of it was turned into a lush, vast sanctuary.
Building over 300 acres of wasteland into a beautiful, self-sustaining rainforest was not an easy task, however, and took decades of patience and knowledge. One of the biggest challenges they faced was inaccessibility. “There are no metal or tar roads. In the monsoon, some roads turn into mud rivers,” Pamela sighs. Through their work, the couple has helped the local community through donations to assemble roads. Another feat was the immensely complicated legal maze to acquire wetlands and plantation lands, where No Objection certificates are required from the entire family of land owners, which can sometimes amount to 50 individuals.
“The best teacher is nature herself,” Pamela says, talking about her process of learning about biodiversity and conservation. From locals’ expertise, advice from NGOs, learnings from researchers and extensive reading, the nature-loving couple has gained enough knowledge to transplant, uproot and replant, grow saplings and piece by piece, put the sanctuary together.
Pamela, with a tone of excitement in her voice, exclaims, “It was a Christmas gift, 2013.” A herd of elephants came down the river and parked themselves before the Malhotras’ house, with their calves in tow. Staying near their house for about an hour and a half, the herd, as Pamela puts it, “trusted us with close proximity.” She adds, “They can’t speak our language, but they read our vibes. They feel love, peace and calm from us and mirror it back to us. It’s a privilege.”
Pamela and Anil’s personal decision to not have children makes the entire sanctuary their shared offspring. “Well, we have no human children. But we have plenty of animal children,” Pamela laughs. With no one to inherit the 300 acres and ensure that it stays a sanctuary, the duo formed the Save Animals Initiative Sanctuary Trust, which helps further their conservation cause. Including educational outreach programs and presentations to various audiences ranging from law associates and judges to college students, schools and business groups, they continue to spread awareness, inspiring people to appreciate, understand and preserve the rich biodiversity of our country.
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