When we first began the process of searching for land in South America that was appropriate for elephants, but also free from excess bureaucratic restrictions, we considered many options. A number of things come into play when you are making a decision as important as creating a new home for rescued elephants: location, terrain, weather, community, cost, and so much more. There were days when it seemed there were more setbacks than steps forward. When we finally were led to the state of Mato Grosso, we saw the potential for a real home but, of course, nothing comes easily. There were several individuals that played essential roles in helping Elephant Sanctuary Brazil come into being, including the generous Senhor Nelson, who we honor here today.
Mato Grosso is an incredibly diverse state, but has been unfortunately pillaged for agriculture and vast swaths of Amazon forest in the north were leveled. When we arrived, the mayor of a city to the north welcomed the sanctuary project with open arms and attempted to procure free land. One generous land owner wanted to donate close to 2,300 acres of land, but this land was undocumented (meaning there was no official deed), making it a high-risk choice for us. Due to the beauty of the Mato Grosso region, its location at the southern end of the Amazon forest, and the community support, we continued for several months in search of property to purchase. We found several locations that would work, but each one ultimately presented us with issues that would take great time and effort to resolve.
Our expanded search led us to the municipality of Chapada dos Guimaraes toward the southern part of the state, just a couple of hours from the state capital and in the “cerrado” biome. With a higher altitude, cooler temperatures, an abundance of nature, springs and waterfalls, this region not only offered what the elephants would need, but also more legal stability. One land in particular always jumped off the computer screen. The photos were breathtaking. Two visits to this property made us realize that this was it – this was the perfect farm to convert to Elephant Sanctuary Brazil.
But, there were problems. The 600 hectares we were considering had a 48-hectare parcel of land that nearly split the property in two – and it was owned by a separate individual. On the back side of the property was another 250 hectares, with yet another owner, which required access through the sanctuary to arrive at their land. It was a geographical puzzle. And, then there was the price. Here in Brazil, it is virtually impossible for nonprofit organizations to get bank loans and, with incredibly high interest rates, purchase options were limited. Many land acquisitions are private sales, often requiring 50% payment of the land value up front and the rest within 18 months. Also, not an option for a young nonprofit organization.
Fortunately and nothing short of a miracle, the owner of the property had a heart of gold. Senhor Nelson listened to our dream, he learned of Ramba, Maia, Guida, and several other elephants in need, and he vowed to help us make this work. Sr. Nelson took it upon himself to talk three additional land owners – the 48 hectares in the middle, the 250 hectares in the back, and yet another beneficial 250 hectares – to sell their lands to him, and then he sold the entire 1,100 hectares to the sanctuary. While incredible, this increased exponentially the financial burden on the sanctuary. Once again, Sr. Nelson offered to help.
Through all of this, we would sit across the table from one another, each of us knowing that we were taking a huge leap of faith, each of us united in the desire to make it happen, and each of us with doubts if it could really work. As we know, it did work and, thanks to the trust Sr. Nelson had in our work and in the dream of giving sanctuary to elephants, this perfect location is now their forever home. Sr. Nelson and his family have always been there for the sanctuary. They were here to celebrate the first arrivals and they opened many doors with friends and colleagues throughout the region.
A few days ago, we learned the very difficult news that Sr. Nelson passed away. He was a pillar for his family, and for his community. He was a person of honor and someone you could always count on. Our hearts are heavy with the sadness of this beautiful spirit leaving this world far too soon. Our love pours out to his family, who we know are suffering and reeling from their loss. And we are filled with gratitude at having the great fortune of knowing this kind soul.
This unique and beautiful land became a sanctuary entirely because of the goodness of Sr. Nelson. We are forever grateful.
Photo of Mara from her early days at sanctuary, surrounded by the beautiful home that Sr. Nelson helped us give to her.