It's now home to elephants, rhinos, tigers, and more.

Elizabeth Preske
August 08, 2018

It may take a village to raise a child, but it only takes one man to plant a forest.

In 1979, 16-year-old Padma Shri Jadav "Molai" Payeng was devastated when he stumbled upon a pile of dead snakes, scorched to death by extreme heat on the banks of Majuli Island in Assam, India.

Due to erosion, Majuli — the largest river island in the world — has lost more than half its land mass in nearly 50 years. Scientists say the island could be gone in another 15 to 20, according to the award-winning documentary "Forest Man."

The snakes, which came to the island by way of flooding from the Brahmaputra river, could find no shade to escape the heat.

When he saw the snakes, Payeng  told NPR he knew he had to do something about it or else even humans might "have to die this way in the heat." 

And so, with an unquestionable love for his homeland and the most admirable dedication, Payeng planted one sapling on the barren land every day for the next 35 years.

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Payeng's tremendous efforts have paid off 39 years later. Spreading over 1,360 acres, the woodland, named Molai Forest after Payeng, is about 1.6 times larger than Central Park.

The forest contains several thousand varieties of trees, according to The Guardian, and has attracted elephants, rhinos, deer, wild boars, reptiles, vultures, and Royal Bengal tigers. 

Aptly nicknamed the "Forest Man of India," Payeng said that planting was "very time consuming" before he started collecting seeds from the trees. Even now, Payeng starts his day around 3 a.m. to reach Majuli by 5 a.m. to care for his woodland.

In 2015, Payeng won the Padma Shri, one of the highest civilian awards in India, for his perseverance and hard work. He considers Molai Forest his family and advocates for environmental protection and better education, teaching children from a young age how to raise trees.

Payeng plans to plant 5,000 more acres on Majuli, creating a 500-mile stretch of flora on the Brahmaputra river's sandbars, NPR reported.

"My dream is to fill up Majuli Island and Jorhat with forest again," Payeng said. "I will continue to plant until my last breath. I tell people, cutting those trees will get you nothing. Cut me before you cut my trees!"

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