Dr Anil Malhotra and his wife Mrs Pamela Malhotra are best known as the couple that managed to turn 300 acres of unproductive land into a private wildlife sanctuary. Not only did they save the land from a certain death, they also restored the ecological balance of the area and provided a safe harbour to several endangered species of animals to boot.
We caught up with the affable Pamela Gale Malhotra for an interview on the Sai Sanctuary, their plans for expansion and what gave birth to their passion for saving the environment.
Sai Sanctuary was not their first endeavour. Pamela, who grew up in the United States has always loved gardening as a child and grew organic fruits and vegetables.
It started with a few acres of forest land in Colorado near the Rocky Mountains that they protected along with 40 acres of land in Hawaii for wildlife and two major fresh water sources for that island. They bulk of the organic produce that they grew was donated to the Women’s and Child Crisis Shelter.
They wanted to do the same thing in India on a larger scale. The land ceiling act in the North drove them to Southern India, where Mr Malhotra (who is an agriculturist himself) researched and discovered that one of the greatest crisis facing the country is the drying up of fresh water sources.
Pamela, who is of Native American ancestry (Osage tribe) recounts a common saying which in turn is inspired by an old Native American proverb, “A true conservationist recognises that our children do not inherit the earth from us, we borrow the earth from them.”
From buying 55 acres of land in 1991 from farmers who were facing losses due to crop failure (Kodagu district receives a high amount of rainfall and is not suited for agriculture) to a mammoth 300 acres today, the couple have created a wildlife sanctuary that houses several threatened and endangered species of animals, flora and fauna. As a result they have also restored the balance of nature in the surrounding areas.
The sanctuary has a couple of eco tourist cottages where people can experience the peace and greenery of the forest and offers guided treks as well.
The sanctuary also houses a family of Indian wild dogs which sadly has become a threatened species. Till the 1960s, Indian wild dogs were considered a pest and even had a bounty on their heads. Indian wild dogs or the dhole are a critical part of the balance of nature explains Pamela. They help to keep the animals that eat grass under control. She explains: “The Indian jackal was the primary predator of the wild boar. The wild boar is voracious breeder and is known to destroy crops on a large-scale.
In the 90s, ginger farmers poisoned their ginger so that the wild boar would eat it and their crops would be spared. The jackal ate the wild boars and as a result jackals in the Kodagu district are virtually extinct.
The Indian dhole, which is part of the sanctuary took over the role of the predator and kept the wild boars in check. As a result the neighbouring farmers reported a drop in the wild boar population destroying its crops.”
Elephants who call the sanctuary home now have a source of fresh water and food and have no need to raid crops and field. (Human beings had encroached upon their natural habitat in the first place)
Their charity work has also taken them up in the Himalayas where they teach people not to burn the mountains each year. Their used their own land as a ‘living laboratory’ to show the people why they don’t need to resort to burning their land. They also used their own resources to help build a bridge to help women cross the Assiganga. They helped plant fruit trees, so children could have a fruit each day. Doing so helped ward off child blindness caused by a deficiency of vitamins. She recalls an incident where a two-year old child had got severe burns due to scalding hot water and had to walk half an hour to get to them. They submerged him in the waters of the Assiganga, put honey (a natural anti-bacterial agent) on his wounds and took him to the hospital which effectively saved his life. They also fund road building projects and local government schools.
The Malhotras’ vision is to be the biological corridor that connects from Kanyakumari to Himalayas and spans the breadth of the East and West, all the forest areas connected to each other. This stems not only from the love of the forest but established scientific research.
Forests are the first line of defence against climate change. They help in producing rain clouds. A 10% increase in forest cover will decrease temperatures by 4 degrees. In 2012, a study discovered that over 50% of the rainfall comes from the forests! Ever wondered why forests seem to have a misty air above them? It’s water vapour condensing on potassium salts that is produced by the forest. One can only shudder to think of what would happen if rainforests were torn down. As a result, human-animal conflict will also reduce because animals have no reason to step out.
India, as well as the rest of the world is experiencing severe fresh water shortages and protecting forest land can save that. “In the late 1970s, 86% of Kodagu had forests, today its 16%. They had no problems with water then and now they are receiving water every 3 days”, rues Pamela.
The Malhotras love being around nature. They love spending whatever spare time they have in the peace and tranquility of the sanctuary. They love forest and nature and believe that forests and nature can bring their senses to peace. “Concrete and consumption is not going to feed your soul”, muses Pamela.
On their plans for expansion? An emphatic “Yes”. All the owners of the land they’ve acquired have approached them because they couldn’t grow anything, says Pamela. 90-95% of all purchases for SAI have come from their personal funds. The Malhotras are trying to interest various NGOs and CSR money from corporates to expand the sanctuary.
“All charitable programmes, whether it’s education or healthcare begins with fresh water”, says Pamela in matter-of-fact tone.
Dr Anil signs off with a message to the billionaires of India.
“You cannot take your money up, nor can you drink it, nor can you eat it, you need fresh water. And without the forest, all your streams and rivers will dry up. You will not have any fresh water. So what businesses are you going to do? What life are you going to lead? For God’s sake, wake up before it’s too late.”