When Pamela Malhotra answers the phone, she sounds very excited. She’s just seen a rare black-tipped mongoose that she’s never before in all her 25 years at SAI Sanctuary!
The mongoose is just one of more than 350 species of birds and animals that find safe habitat in SAI (Save Animals Initiative) Sanctuary — 300 acres of India’s only private forest. In 1991, Dr. Anil and Pamela Malhotra, newly arrived in India with a dream to protect forests and wildlife. They acquired 55 acres of degraded forest lands and denuded former agricultural lands from farmers in Coorg, and set about making it a reality. SAI Sanctuary is in the Western Ghats - one of the world's greatest biodiversity hotspots - and is bordered by Bandipur, Brahmagiri, and Nagarhole forest reserves. It acts as a buffer between the villages and the primary forest and is one of the few intact Asian elephant migration corridors.
Scientific agriculture is key to a safe future
“When we first came to Coorg in 1991, cardamom was the primary crop here and, because it is a shade and water loving crop, many of the large native trees remained on some estates, providing shade, holding water, raising the groundwater table, attracting rainfall, and regulating temperature," explains Pamela.
In 1997, following the deregulation of the coffee market, coffee prices began declining rapidly and plantation owners began investing in ginger to offset the falling prices. The ginger farmers razed the forest cover and planted poisoned ginger to eradicate the root-eating wild boar population in the region. While it did eliminate many boar, the unintended and sad fallout of this misguided strategy was that it drove the Indian jackal, a formerly abundant predator of wild boar to near extinction. As a result, the wild boar population exploded, accompanied by raiding and destruction of crops, and leading to man-animal conflict.
“Ancient teachings of the Coorgs mandated keeping 25% of their land under forest cover as a means of ensuring good rainfall, moist, fertile soil, and an abundance of natural propagators of the forest," Pamela informs. The district also had several community-owned devarakadu (sacred groves) which were in great shape until 2010 when widespread and systematic deforestation began. This, together with the illegal encroachment of over 1000 acres of government forest land by plantation owners has broken the elephant corridors and brought the pachyderms into ever-increasing contact with humans. It has also rendered the forests between Nagarhole and Brahmagiri Wildlife Sanctuaries one of the most fragmented in Karnataka’s green belt. The reduction of forest cover in Coorg from 86 percent in the late 1970s to only 16 percent today is manifesting as severe water shortage in the district and by extension in Karnataka’s agri-belt and cities as rising temperatures, erratic rainfall patterns, drying up of rivers, streams and aquifers, and drought-like conditions in the summer.
While the sanctuary grew in size, the couple began an intensive reforestation programme with the help of the local community — planting indigenous trees, transplanting saplings, reviving barren land, and protecting local wildlife.
While forest islands with large trees regulate temperature and sequester a good amount of CO2, continuous and contiguous forests, even with individual trees that are not as large in bulk, sequester far more C02 and produce far more rainfall. Each of the large trees on the Sanctuary is a micro-system for numerous other species of plants and animals.
The results? The water table in the area increased and the river running through the sanctuary flows perennially. “Even in the drought of 2013, it didn’t stop flowing while our neighbours wells, dug in 1800s, went completely dry," Pamela tells me.
Other positive impacts include a resurgence of endangered species like the Indian Wild Dog (or dhol) and the Nilgiri Marten. With the predatory dhols stepping in for the lost jackals, the wild boar population is in check and neighbouring farms report fewer crop raids. There is also a profusion of large and small mammals including elephants, wild hare, giant squirrels, leopard cats and tiger and leopard activity. “We’re seeing more and varied species than we used to as well as more individuals per species," says Pamela. The absence of human intrusion in the sanctuary means more ruminants like the Sambar and Chittal are seen grazing during the day. "The temperature within the sanctuary is cooler than it is outside, validating studies that a 10 percent increase in forest area creates a 4 degree temperature drop," Anil explains.
Besides being home to a variety of local wildlife, the Sanctuary also serves as a rehabilitation and release site for injured reptiles, birds, and small mammals like terrapins, slender loris, owls etc. rescued from illegal ownership and trade in cities by the Bannerghatta Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre (WRRC).
Their efforts won the duo Wildlife and Tourism Initiative of the Year 2014, awarded by Sanctuary TOFTigers Wildlife Tourism.
Where Nature and you are one
The Malhotras live in the heart of the Sanctuary in an off-the-grid, eco-friendly home, powered by solar panels, micro-windmills, and biogas and fed by water harvesting structures. Their organic garden provides fresh food for residents and guests. Visitors to SAI Sanctuary stay in eco-cottages with a view of the cloud forest. They are taken on guided walks through the forest, offering as intimate an experience as possible with Nature.
“When you are on foot, on the same level as the wildlife, that is when you can truly appreciate it and not when you are speeding past it in vehicles," says Pamela.
Parts of the Sanctuary are home to ancient trees, over 700 years old. Their height and bulk can have a profound impact on people and the way they think about life and Nature.
The Sanctuary is a model for all private individuals, corporations and communities looking to invest in the expanding India’s forest cover. The Malhotras actively support and guide others looking to replicate their private forest initiative to re-green India.
“In the name of development, we have systematically dismantled most of India’s wild spaces. Today, we have barely 2.5 percent dense forest cover left. Unless we come together as a people to remedy that, we are putting our water supply, food security and future at risk.”
“We had a dream," Pamela says, “but that we would succeed in creating something of this size, something that would attract so many species is beyond our wildest imagination.” But, their success today is not without its share of determination, sacrifices, hard work and dedication to a sustainable lifestyle. “I’m part Native American Iroquois who believe in ‘The Seventh Generation’ which says that before making any decision today, we must think of its impact on the seventh generation hence. The best legacy we can leave for our children is a living planet.”
Mother Nature, if given half a chance, will regenerate herself. Will we give her that chance?
How you can help: SAI Sanctuary offers an intern / volunteer programme in the post-monsoon months. For more information, visit: www.saisanctuary.com
Watch Rooted Truth, a short documentary about SAI.
Images © SAI Sanctuary
Maya is a social researcher by training. Her writing has appeared in Scroll, YourStory and The Alternative. She is the Founder of Eartha and tweets @Maya_Kilpadi.