As children, they grew up amidst verdant nature. While 76-year-old Anil Malhotra attended Welham Boys’ School and The Doon School—both located in Dehradun in the foothills of the Himalayas—his 65-year-old wife Pamela Malhotra nee Gale spent much of her early years running barefoot and climbing trees near her family estate in New Jersey, USA. So it didn’t come as a surprise when, in 1991, the couple decided to buy 55 acres of barren land in Karnataka to turn it into a green paradise. Over 25 years later, that land has turned into a 300-acre biodiversity hotspot, also known as India’s first private wildlife sanctuary. Today, SAI Sanctuary finds a unique place of pride in the Western Ghats, the heart of the watershed area for the entire south Indian peninsula. It has become home to a rich variety of indigenous trees and plants, and numerous rare and threatened animals such as river otters, civet cats, giant Malabar squirrels and slender loris, besides various types of deer, monkeys, snakes, foxes, jackals, leopards, the Asian elephant and the royal Bengal tiger.
SAI Sanctuary has been dubbed ‘Noah’s Ark’ by an Oxford University scientist, one of the many naturalists and scientists who have done research within its grounds. But how did it all start? Anil first met his future wife Pamela in New Jersey in the 1960s. When she moved to Colorado in the early 1970s to study, he moved there too. They both shared a love for wildlife, but it was there amidst the Rocky Mountains that their love for nature grew with each trek through the forest that they undertook. The turning point came when they fell in love with Hawaii, where they had gone on their honeymoon after their marriage in 1976, and decided to buy some land and settle there. “We set up a small nature preserve on Big Island and started growing organic vegetables. These vegetables were donated to the Women’s Crisis Shelter in Hilo, along with clothing and toys for children living there,” says Pamela, an alumna of Colorado State University, USA. Upon returning to India in 1986 (they had come for the funeral of Anil’s father), the couple sought to replicate their model of a nature preserve deep in the Uttarkashi region of the Himalayas, where they also founded their first non-profit NGO, Himalaya Seva Dal. They, however, failed to find any land for sale in northern India. The laws there restricted ownership of land to just 12 acres—not enough for what they wanted to do. It was then that the couple went further south, to Kodagu district of Karnataka, where they bought a 55-acre wasteland. “The owner wanted to sell the land because he couldn’t grow anything there owing to heavy rainfall. For us, however, it was the perfect place owing to the rich biodiversity of the flora and fauna,” explains Pamela.
Soon, the Malhotras started the process of reforestation by planting a few native trees and let nature take its own course. The forest cover started spreading and it was just a matter of time before wild animals and birds moved in too. The overall journey, however, has not been easy. “Initially, there were a lot of misunderstandings between us and the local people. Most of them did not understand what we were doing, as we were seen as outsiders. They also started hunting and poaching animals in the forest,” says Pamela, adding, “Over the years, however, we have been able to convince them that we are here for a reason and that, too, permanently. We have also helped them rebuild roads that were once unusable during monsoons and set up schools in the region without which they wouldn’t have been able to educate their children. We also once helped them rebuild a temple in one corner of the sanctuary.” In 2013, the couple decided to open their sanctuary to visitors, but on a selective basis. The idea was to slowly venture into eco-tourism, something that would also benefit the local populace economically. Soon, they started a homestay with two cottages inside the sanctuary. They installed solar panels for power supply. “However, there are several restrictions. We don’t just let anybody come here. They have to respect nature and shouldn’t mind having only vegetarian food. We also don’t allow smoking or drinking in order to maintain the purity of the place,” explains Pamela. As part of the homestay package, they conduct guided treks on foot—not jeep safaris, as seen in other wildlife sanctuaries. One can be part of this journey by paying `2,950 a day, which includes three meals and the nature trek.
The Malhotras consider the period from November to mid-June as their peak season. “Christmas and the New Year’s time also keep us busy. Sometimes, we get larger groups too. In January, a team of 16 school students and teachers stayed at our place for an entire week. In fact, that’s the maximum number of people that we can accommodate at a time in our homestay,” says Pamela. The couple also grow a few acres of coffee apart from cardamom, fruits, vegetables and paddy in the sanctuary through organic farming. While the couple started everything with their own money and now have a registered non-profit trust to carry on their work, they lament that shortage of money is always a huge problem. “Except for a small clothing manufacturer, we have had practically no donation or support from either the government or the business community. I have approached so many business houses, given presentations, but to no avail. And that’s frustrating,” she says. “People don’t understand that without forests or wildlife, they will not have fresh water. And without water, they won’t be able to carry out any activity, including business. So we must protect our forests and wildlife for the sake of our children and future generations,” Pamela explains, adding, “We want big companies to buy more land and let the forest grow as part of their corporate responsibility programmes.”