Born in a family of wildlife conservationists spanning across India and Africa, Zoha started a horse sanctuary in her family’s wildlife resort in southern India. She is involved firsthand in the rescue and rehabilitation of equines who then get to spend the rest of their lives in the sanctuary while she continues her quest to resolve man-animal conflicts around forests.
Author: Charlotte Kingsman
Question: Can you tell us a little about yourself and your journey with horses?
My name is Zoha Jung Nambiar. I’m the owner and founder of The Backwater Sanctuary, an equine rescue and rehabilitation initiative. I come from a family of wildlifers and conservationists and therefore spent a lot of my time in the wilderness of both India and Africa, where my father runs wildlife camps and lodges.
My first interaction with horses was when I was barely a year old. I grew up with two ponies, Shampoo and Chocolate, who I absolutely adored. We kept them in our wildlife resort in India’s Bandipur National Park where they lived a long and beautiful life with us. I then started riding when I was about 7 years old. I dabbled briefly in equitation which consequently deepened my love for horses. Horses have been my passion ever since.
I’m also a founding trustee of The Buffer Conflict Resolution Trust of India (BCRTI, a non-profit that focuses on wildlife conservation and conflict resolution (man-animal conflict) in the boundary areas between forests and villages in South India. I see my equine rescue initiative as the epitome of a man-animal conflict in its own way. As such, The Backwater Sanctuary works hand in hand with BCRTI.
Q: How was the Backwater Sanctuary born?
In 2017, a very special horse came into my life. Tsavo, known as Bach, first came to me as a pet. I kept him at my family’s wildlife camp in Karnataka called The Bison Resort where he was – and still is – free to roam wild and free. Tsavo used to be a race horse who was discarded to a local riding school where his condition deteriorated significantly. When I first got him, he was skin and bones and covered in wounds and rain rot. After a year of love and proper care, he transformed into the most beautiful horse I’ve seen, both emotionally and physically. That’s when I realized I could help more horses like Tsavo.
We had quite a bit of spare land on our resort, which is what allowed me to even consider taking on more animals. Things got slightly out of hand though as – a year later – we have 19 resident rescues. We’ve also helped rescue and re-home close to 20 other equines in the last year.
Q: How does the horse sanctuary operate in India?
The Backwater Sanctuary is located on the property of The Bison Resort, which overlooks Nagarhole National Park and the Kabini Backwaters. We have 19 resident rescues including horses, donkeys and a goat! For the better part of the year, the backwaters are low, leaving behind plenty of grazing land on which our rescues are free to roam during the day. Given we’re so close to the national park, at night all our animals are secured safely in their stables.
Our rehabilitation involves caring for both the physical and emotional needs of our rescues. I like to incorporate a thorough and holistic approach to equine wellness. For instance, our paddock placement enables social interactions which are crucial to successful rehabilitation. Medical treatment includes vaccinations, deworming, grooming, dental and farrier but also alternative methods of healing including Equine Craniosacral therapy, Reiki and Homeopathy.
We are lucky to be on the property of a wildlife resort. This means that our guests can interact and help out with our rescues on top of enjoying safaris in one of India’s best national parks where you can find tigers, leopards and now a resident black panther.
Q: What were the main challenges you came across?
Being so far away from civilization! The process of getting all necessary systems in place for my animals was tough. I initially struggled to find people who would deal with the rescues with trust and respect instead of force and control. But eventually I got lucky with my team, including a trustworthy farrier willing to come out here regularly. Finding like-minded equine vets who would travel the 5 hours journey to the sanctuary to treat an emergency was also difficult. As a result, I’ve learned how to do all the necessary medical treatment myself. It was quite traumatizing at first but now I can pretty much handle all the basics – a little more!
Another challenge was being so close to the national park which means that sometimes tigers and leopards wander quite close. We’ve had to make stables that are predator-proof. Luckily, I feel we’re finally somewhat organized and things are falling into place.
Q: What’s a typical day in your life like?
My days revolve around the rescues. All the animals are turned out into their respective paddocks every day at 8am. We start preparing their feed at 10am and feeding starts at 10:20 on the dot as I like to stick to strict timings to avoid any potential colic issues.
After feed we usually do the medical treatments, before leaving them out to graze on the backwaters. It is a huge piece of pasture by the lake where they enjoy being wild and free. By sunset, they come back themselves (they know their routine!) and we start preparing their evening feed. By sundown, they’re secured safely in the stables for the night.
Q: What was the most memorable rescue?
I think the most traumatizing rescue was Savannah – a 25-year-old pony who arrived a whisker away from death. She collapsed in her stable as soon as she arrived and was unable to get up for the first couple of days. She had a bruised eye that swelled to the size of a baseball as well as seizures from neurological issues resulting from human inflicted injuries. One of her legs was swollen too after a nail made an inch-deep hole.
During transport, her previous owners had strapped her down on her side, lying on her bruised eye and unable to move. She was so traumatized that she’d bitten down on her tongue. As a result, her tongue was swollen and she couldn’t graze or eat solid foods. We had to keep her going on mashed up carrots and beans mixed with water and electrolytes to gain back her energy. It took over a week for her to be able to graze again, two weeks until she could eat solid foods and over two months until she could walk again without a limp. Her eye took a few months to heal but is now perfectly fine.
Savannah bonded with my other rescue Tsavo who was with her throughout her recovery process and helped her heal, both emotionally and physically. The two are now inseparable and live out their days being happy and free side by side on the backwaters. She’s a beautiful pony now, and has even given birth to a gorgeous healthy little colt!
Each of our rescues has a heartbreaking story of their own. From being hit by cars and left abandoned and disabled to simply being abused and neglected by their previous owners. Every rescue has been an eye-opener. I like to use their stories as examples to help spread awareness on the need for equine welfare here in India.
Q: How do you see this horse sanctuary evolving in India over the next few years?
Hopefully more land and more rescues! I need funds and the right infrastructure but I am already on the lookout for land with natural pastures. Once I’ve found that I will start building stables for a second sanctuary, hopefully not too far away from here so I can spend enough time with all the rescues.
Q: How can we help?
Owning and caring for equines is very expensive. We accept donations in any form (monetary and/or equine supplies/medicines) including sponsorships. It costs Rs. 7,000 (USD 98) to sponsor a horse for a month, Rs. 6,000 (USD 84) to sponsor a pony and Rs. 5,000 (USD 70) to sponsor a donkey.
In case you are as impressed as we are with how Zoha cares for these horses in India, follow the link to support Backwater Horse Sanctuary in India!
To see more amazing photos of happy horses enjoying their second chance in life, check out Zoha’s adventures on Instagram.
India is a magical place, where thousand-year-old traditions clash with a modern vibrant lifestyle. Zoha’s story and the Backwater Horse Sanctuary are one example how horses fit into modern India. To find out more about the equine culture in India and the beautiful traditional breed of Marwari horses, have a look at our other articles about India and its horses.