Thirty years ago, the Mulai forest near Assam, India was nothing more than a barren sandbar, where nothing thrived. Then Jadav Payeng came along and transformed it. Today, it’s an incredible ecosystem.
In 1979, at just 16, Payeng saw a large number of snakes wash onto the sandbar during a flood. But when the waters receded, the reptiles died as a result of the harsh, sunny conditions. The experience gave Payeng a mission in 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.
The teenager gave up his education and home and moved to the sandbar — alone. There, he single-handedly planted, watered and pruned the bamboo, and the forest slowly began to grow and thrive. The success spurred him to try other plants.
“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,” he says.
He dedicated his life to creating a new ecosystem — he still lives there — and today, Mulai Forest (named after Peyang’s nickname) is a 1,360-acre habitat to numerous species, including rhinos, elephants, endangered tigers, deer, rabbits and vultures. Peyang does his best to preserve the wildlife in the forest, which is threatened by poachers.
“A few years back, poachers tried to kill the rhinos staying in the forest but failed in their attempt due to Mulai who alerted department officials. Immediately our officials swung into action and seized various articles used by the poachers to trap the animals,” says a forest official.
The Assam forest department became aware of Penang’s work in 2008, and were stunned at his achievement. Peyang says that his one regret in his life’s undertaking is that the government has never offered financial assistance for maintaining the forest. But now there is hope that that might change.
“We were surprised to find such a dense forest on the sandbar. Locals, whose homes had been destroyed by the [elephants], 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 assistant conservator of forests Gunin 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.”
Now nearly 50, Peyang has no intention of slowing down. In fact, he wants to create similar ecosystems in other parts of India. “If the Forest Department promises me to manage the forest in a better way, I shall go to other places of the state to start a similar venture,” he says.