Way back in 1953, French author Jean Giono wrote the epic tale The Man Who Planted Trees. It seemed so real that readers thought the central character, Elzeard Bouffier, was actually a living individual until the author clarified that he had created the person only to make his readers fall in love with trees.

More than 30 years ago, a teenager named Jadav “Molai” Payeng began burying seeds along a barren sandbar near his birthplace in northern India’s Assam region to grow a refuge for wildlife. Not long after, he decided to dedicate his life to this endeavor, so he moved to the site so he could work full-time creating a lush new forest ecosystem. Incredibly, the spot today hosts a sprawling 1,360 acres of jungle that Payeng planted — single-handedly. He has never heard of Giono’s book. But Jadav Payeng could be Bouffier in real world. He has been on a one-man mission to save Assam’s green cover. Now Jadav is famous as ‘Forest Man of India’.

Jadav was borne in Assam in 1963. Jadav’s childhood was as simple as any other kid who played with sticks and stones, in the rivers and mountains, and worked in the fields. It all started way back in 1979 during the floods which ravaged Assam, that Jadav had found his calling. Walking along the sandbars of the Brahmaputra River, Jadav observed the floods had washed many snakes ashore onto the sandbars. The slithering reptilians delighted him, but this did not last long. A few days later, he found the snakes were all dead. The heat and the absence of any tree cover had killed them. The sixteen year old Jadav wept over their lifeless forms but would not stand doing nothing. That was the turning point of his life.

Jadav alerted the forest officials who refused his request to grow trees. They said to him nothing would grow in the sandbars and asked him to try growing bamboo trees. And even though it was a painstaking process, Jadav started planting bamboo. A year later, in 1980, the Assam Forestry Division initiated a plantation process of two hundred hectares of land in one of the sandbars of the Brahmaputra, known then as Aruna Chapori, in Jorhat district. Jadav enrolled for the job and started planting trees for the project.
This is where the story of Jadav’s life ends, or rather, begins. The project successfully ended in five years, but Jadav had decided to stay back. Leaving his home, Payeng willingly accepted a life of isolation. He watered the plants morning and evening and pruned them.Since then and during the past 32 years, Jadav has been planting more and more trees, tendering and caring about them with utmost compassion. He also transported red ants from his village, and was stung many times. Red ants change the soil’s properties.

Now that once-barren sandbar is a sprawling 1,360 acre forest, home to several thousands of varieties of trees including vast expanses of bamboo groves and an astounding diversity of wildlife – including birds, deer, apes, rhino, elephants and even tigers. Aptly named on its creator who has just turned 50, the forest is locally known as ‘Mulai Kathoni’ (Mulai’s woods) or Mulai Forest. The flora of the forest consists of thousands of trees of various species, including vast expanses of bamboo groves. The fauna of birds is equally fascinating. There are also four Tigers, five Rhinoceros, Rabbits, Primates and over a hundred Deer that have made Jadav’s forest their home. A herd of around 100 elephants regularly visits the forest every year and generally stay for around six months. They also gave birth to 10 calves in the forest in recent times.

“After 12 years, we’ve seen vultures. Migratory birds, too, have started flocking here. Deer and cattle have attracted predators,” claims Payeng. A few years back, poachers tried to kill the rhinos staying in the forest but failed in their attempt due to Jadav.

The Assam State Forest Department learnt about Payeng’s forest only in 2008 and they were surprised to find such a dense forest on the sandbar.

Today, Payeng still lives in a small hut in the forest. He shares a small hut with his wife Binita, and three children (two sons and a daughter) and makes a living selling cow and buffalo milk. He has good number of cows and buffaloes in his farm and sells the milk for his livelihood. In a recent interview he revealed that he lost around 100s of cows and buffaloes to the Tigers in the forest, but blames the people who carry out large scale encroachment and destruction of forests as the root cause of the plight of wild animals. Jadav Payeng talks like a trained conservationist. “Nature has made a food chain; why can’t we stick to it? Who would protect these animals if we, as superior beings, start hunting them?” Jadav says that if the Forest Department promises to manage the forest in a better way, then he would go to other places of Assam or any states of India as well as abroad to start a similar venture.

Jadav Payeng was recently honoured by the Jawaharlal Nehru University in recognition for his efforts, which also conferred the title “Forest Man of India” on him. Payeng was also given an award for his contributions to the conservation of environment by former President Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam Ajad in Mumbai in July 2012. On September 24, 2012, among the 900 specialists who were assemble at the seventh global conference of the international forum for sustainable development at Evian in France, Jadav was invited to the global conference to present his views and experience on his singlehandedly created forest.