Jadav Payeng has single-handedly grown a sprawling forest on a 550-hectare sandbar in the middle of the Brahmaputra. It now has many endangered animals, including at least five tigers, one of which bore two cubs recently. The place lies in Jorhat, some 350 km from Guwahati by road, and it wasn't easy for Sunday Times to access him. Locals call the place 'Molai Kathoni' (Molai's woods) after Payeng's nick name, Molai.
It all started way back in 1979 when floods washed a large number of snakes ashore on the sandbar. One day, after the waters had receded, Payeng , only 16 then, found the place dotted with the dead reptiles. That was the turning point of his life.
"The snakes died in the heat, without any tree cover. I sat down and wept over their lifeless forms. It was carnage . I alerted the forest department and asked them if they could grow trees there. They said nothing would grow there. Instead, they asked me to try growing bamboo. It was painful, but I did it. There was nobody to help me. Nobody was interested," says Payeng, now 47.
Leaving his education and home, he started living on the sandbar. Unlike Robinson Crusoe, Payeng willingly accepted a life of isolation. And no, he had no Man Friday. He watered the plants morning and evening and pruned them. After a few years, the sandbar was transformed into a bamboo thicket. "I then decided to grow proper trees. I collected and planted them. I also transported red ants from my village, and was stung many times. Red ants change the soil's properties . That was an experience," Payeng says, laughing.
Soon, there were a variety of flora and fauna which burst in the sandbar, including endangered animals like the one-horned rhino and Royal Bengal tiger. "After 12 years, we've seen vultures. Migratory birds, too, have started flocking here. Deer and cattle have attracted predators," claims Payeng . He says locals recently killed a rhino which was seen in his forest at another forest in Sibsagar district.
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?"
The Assam state forest department learnt about Payeng's forest only in 2008 when a herd of some 100 wild elephants strayed into it after a marauding spree in villages nearby. They also destroyed Payeng's hutment . It was then that assistant conservator of forests Gunin Saikia met Payeng for the first time.
"We were surprised to find such a dense forest on the sandbar. Locals, whose homes had been destroyed by the pachyderms, wanted to cut down the forest, but Payeng dared them to kill him instead. He treats the trees and animals like his own children. Seeing this, we, too, decided to pitch in," says Saikia. "We're amazed at Payeng. He has been at it for 30 years. Had he been in any other country, he would have been made a hero."