It was April of 1992 when Anil first saw the land that would become the very heart of our forest sanctuary. For months, he had searched high and low throughout the southern Indian peninsula for just the right piece that had all the natural elements needed to transform our dream to reality. From Andhra Pradesh to Tamil Nadu, from Kerala and throughout Karnataka he searched, trekking through scores of properties for sale, but being disappointed with each one he found.

Something was always missing. Sometimes it was the lack of a perennial source of freshwater. At other times it was the lack of privacy with a piece hemmed in by other properties that were far too close, or properties on steep slopes where the lands on the opposite side were not for sale, being owned by someone else.

The different governments ruling the various states also came into play, as each state had its own sets of laws, rules and restrictions about how much land someone could buy, what could and could not be done with the lands, and how much non-agricultural income an individual could already have to still qualify to purchase agricultural lands.

Quite discouraged by what he had been able to find from his travels all over the south, Anil returned to our small house in Andhra Pradesh which we had purchased some years earlier. he happened to mention his disappointment to our neighbour there. This neighbour suggested Anil check the Coorg/Kodagu district of Karnataka to see what was available. The neighbour had relatives who lived in Mysore and, as a result, had been to Kodagu himself over the years.

So, Anil made one last attempt to find suitable land to buy in the south where we could hopefully make our dreams come true, this time visiting Coorg/Kodagu. He had not been there since our visit back in January of 1986, when the then-wildlife warden of Nagarhole National Park had requested us to set up our sanctuary in the district that was his own home. Perhaps his prophetic words then would be fulfilled after all.

Anil started his search in the north, near the district capital Madikeri (also known as Mercara), but again could not find suitable land. Finally, a broker he met there thought he might have the right piece in the south of the district and introduced Anil to a close friend of the seller. The bank was foreclosing on the property as the current owner was not able to make his loan payments, the seller being in danger of losing not only this property, but virtually all his assets to the bank. here then, was an opportunity for Anil to not only purchase land, but to aid someone who was in dire need of financial help as well.

Pamela Gale Malhotra receiving the Nari Shakti Puraskar in 2017 | Image courtesy Government of India

Thus began a process that would become the pattern of almost all lands that would eventually make up our sanctuary – helping sellers in financial need, with lands in turn becoming part of our sanctuary, this first piece indeed going on to become the very heart of our sanctuary.

It was a fifty-five-acre parcel that had been used as a coffee and cardamom plantation. where cardamom had been grown, there were still tall grandmother trees high overhead. But where coffee had been planted, the area had been quite denuded, with only a few native trees left to shade the growing coffee plants.

One of the land’s borders was a flowing river that had its origin in the national Brahmagiri wildlife Sanctuary, the confluence of two freshwater streams that made up the river being within the property’s boundaries on one side. This was critically important since a perennial water source was essential for living on the land full time and for reforestation and rewilding efforts, the confluence forming a small pond from which the larger river continued flowing.

Further downstream was a much larger, wider and deeper pond, stunning in its beauty, surrounded principally by bamboo as well as various water-loving native trees. This larger pond would become an absolute magnet for wildlife in the future, including Asian elephants and Bengal tigers.

Just upstream from this magnificent large pond was another extraordinary feature of this part of the land – a grove of huge “great-grandmother” trees towering overhead, reaching for the heavens. The exquisite trees were later identified as Lophopetalum Wightianum by an Oxford professor who also stated that they were over 700 years old. He went on to explain that each of these giants was a micro-ecosystem for at least fifty other species of both flora and fauna – from orchids, ferns and creepers, to birds, squirrels and civets, to snakes, frogs and other amphibians.

The professor also pointed out that the loss of just one of these magnificent trees would adversely affect numerous other species critical to the overall balance of life in the area. he dubbed our sanctuary “Noah’s Ark” due to its very high level of biodiversity, which included many endemic species found only in the Western Ghats region, most if not all of which were highly threatened with extinction, as were these lofty giants themselves.

While this very special piece of land had virtually all the elements we needed to transform it into the living paradise of “life” as we had envisioned, it did not span both sides of the river. It also bordered some other lands that protruded into key areas along the banks of the river and various-sized ponds which the river formed on it journey. Additionally, except for one natural meadow, it lacked large areas of wetlands and grassy meadows so vital for grazers and grass-eaters like species of deer and gaur, whose presence would, in turn, attract larger predators.

So, Anil asked the owner of the fifty-five-acre parcel to put us in touch with the owners of the neighbouring lands we were interested in purchasing along with his. he agreed, and soon, Anil was negotiating with the two additional landowners who had also abandoned their lands in question, moving out of the area many years earlier to other lands they owned elsewhere in the district. Both owners were keen to sell what were to them their “useless” tracts of land, but which were to us vital to piece together the heart of our sanctuary.

Negotiations took several months, not only with the three landowners and their families, but also with the bank which had been in foreclosure proceedings with the original owner of the fifty-five acres. Drawing on all his negotiating skills, Anil travelled to Mangalore to meet the bank officials at their regional office on behalf of the owner. The result was that the outstanding interest owed on the loan was capped, and all outstanding liens on all properties at risk were removed, as our payment for the purchase of the fifty-five-acre parcel covered the entire loan amount plus interest due, with some cash left over for the original owner as well.

Hence, the new year of 1993 began with the promise that our dreams were about to be fulfilled. we became the new owners of the properties needed to create the heart of our forest sanctuary, while the previous owners received the cash they needed for their own personal plans in life.

We decided to name our sanctuary SAI Sanctuary, SAI being an acronym for Save Animals Initiative. But there is a deeper spiritual meaning behind that name as well – the roots of the word “sai” are “sa”, meaning “all, universal, divine”, and “ai”, meaning “mother”. hence, the sanctuary was dedicated to the Universal divine Mother – Mother nature – Mother of us all.

Excerpted with permission from From the Heart of Nature: The amazing story behind the creation of a private forest sanctuary in India, Pamela Gale Malhotra, ebury Press.