April 9, 2012File this under "anything is possible": Jadav "Molai" Payeng lives in the forest in the northern Indian province of Assam. The place where he lives shares his nickname - it's called 'Molai Kathoni', or 'Molai's Woods'. And that's because Payeng planted all the trees there himself.
One day in 1979, a 16-year-old Payeng found a number of snakes that had been washed ashore on a sandbar due to flooding. By the time he came across them, all the animals were dead because of extreme heat and no tree cover. He says he "sat down and wept over their lifeless forms. It was carnage". When he asked the forest department for help with planting trees, they told him nothing would grow on the sandbar. He decided to prove them wrong.
He left behind his original home and his education and started living on the sandbar itself, dedicating his life to growing first bamboo and then trees. He has lived on the land ever since, fostering the natural environment and even transporting red ants from his village to encourage better soil quality for growing trees. Payeng says he "was stung many times" during transport.
The authorities only discovered what Payeng had accomplished in 2008, when a group of 100 wild elephants went on a marauding spree and wound up in Molai Kathoni, where they destroyed Payeng's home. He rebuilt it, and refused calls to destroy the forest in order to better track the elephants.
Today, there are many species of flora and fauna living in the forest with Payeng, including some endangered species and at least five tigers. One government minister has proposed declaring the area a conservation reserve to protect the forest and its inhabitants.