Pamela Malhotra walks through the forest, pointing out a spot where she and her husband saw a herd of 10 elephants a few days ago. She also shows off a giant tree nearby. “That tree is about 700 years old and draws different types of birds,” she says, running her hand along the massive trunk. Pamela and her husband Anil K Malhotra have spent the last 25 years buying denuded and abandoned agricultural land in Karnataka’s Kodagu district and reforesting it, to return the land to a bio-diverse rainforest for elephants, tigers, leopards, deer, snakes, birds and hundreds of other creatures.
The couple owns 300 acres of land in Brahmagiri, a mountain range in the Western Ghats, which houses the Malhotras’ Save Animals Initiative (SAI) Sanctuary. It’s probably the only private wildlife sanctuary in the country with more than 300 kinds of birds as well as many rare and threatened animal species.
But this was not the scene in 1991 when Anil, 75, and Pamela, 64, who run the SAI Sanctuary Trust, came to this part of the country. “When I came here with a friend who suggested I buy this land, it was a wasteland of 55 acres. The owner wanted to sell because he couldn’t grow coffee or anything else here,” says Anil, an alumnus of Doon School, who worked in the real estate and restaurant business in the US before moving to India. “For me and Pamela, this was what we were looking for all our life.”
They had almost given up the search for land after hitting the land ceiling hurdle in north India. The couple, who met and married in New Jersey, US, in the 1960s, had a love for nature from their childhood. When they went on their honeymoon to Hawaii, they fell in love with its beauty and decided to settle there. “That is where we learnt the value of forests and realized that despite threats of global warming no serious efforts were being made to save forests for the future,” says Anil.
When the Malhotras came to India for the funeral of Anil’s father in 1986, the pollution in Haridwar horrified them. “There was so much deforestation, the timber lobby was in charge, and the river was polluted. And no one seemed to care. That was when we decided to do something to reclaim the forests in India,” says Anil, sitting below a dense canopy in front of their house facing the Brahmagiri hills.
When they realized they would not find land in north India, the search turned southwards. Malhotra’s friend had told him that if he was looking for returns, this land in Brahmagiri wouldn’t provide any. “We were not looking for money. Early on, we realized that shortage of fresh water will be a concern for India and the rest of the world. Acquisition, protection and reclamation of forested lands and wildlife habitat, where vital water sources have their origin, is the only way to save ourselves,” explains Anil.
They sold property they owned in Hawaii, bought the first 55 acres at the foothills of the Brahmagiri range and began afforestation work. Soon, they realized there was no use nurturing a forest on one side of the stream when landholders on the other side were using pesticides for cultivation. “We started buying lands across the stream whenever they came up for sale. Many of the farmers considered their holdings ‘wasteland’ as very little grew on it and were happy to get money,” says Malhotra.
But there were legal complications as many land documents were not in order and many farmers had debts to be settled. “Once we bought the land, we allowed the forest to regenerate. We planted native species where necessary and allowed nature to take care of the rest,” says Anil. Today, SAI Sanctuary covers approximately 300 acres, and draws naturalists and scientists doing research on the different animal species as well as hundreds of indigenous trees and plants, which have medicinal value as well.
Hunting and poaching was a challenge and often locals did not understand what “this couple from the US” was doing, so it was slow going and required a lot of talking to create awareness. “A priest of a temple located on a nearby hillock was killed by a tiger and villagers were afraid. We helped them rebuild the temple at a safer location, but our condition was that they’d give up hunting and poaching,” says Pamela. “When they asked us why, we asked them why they worshipped Hanuman and Ganesha but killed animals. It worked,” she says.
They worked with the forest department to set up camera traps and keep poachers away. “There are times I have fought poachers with logs,” says Pamela.
The couple gets help from other trustees to keep the sanctuary going. They also try convincing large companies to buy land and let it flourish as part of their corporate social responsibility plans. “Corporates should extend their CSR activities towards this sector,” says Pamela. “Without water, what business will you do?”