The Man Who Planted Trees, a tale by French author Jean Giono published in 1953, is a story of a French shepherd, Elzéard Bouffier, who brings about a miracle and restores an entire forest by himself.

The story seemed so real that readers thought Elzeard Bouffier was a living individual and the author chronicled his actual work. The book was distributed freely and was a major success to the pride of Giono, who enjoyed allowing people to believe that the story was real. However, he admitted that “the goal was to make trees likeable, or more specifically, make planting trees likeable.” India’s Jadav Payeng has never heard of Giono’s book. But he could be Bouffier. Unlike the character, he has actually single-handedly grown a sprawling forest on a 550-hec hectare sandbar in the middle of the Brahmaputra (Ganga tributary). It now has many endangered animals, including at least five tigers, one of which bore two cubs recently. The place lies in Jorhat district in Assam, some 350 km from Guwahati by road and it isn’t easy to access. At one point on the stretch, a smaller road has to be taken for some 30 km to reach the riverbank.

There, if one is lucky, boatmen will ferry you across to the riverbank. A trek of another 7 km will then land you near Payeng’s door. Locals call the place ‘Molai Kathoni’ (Molai’s woods) after Payeng’s pet name, Molai.

It all started way back in 1979 when floods washed a large number of snakes ashore on the sandbar in the middle of the Brahmaputra. 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 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 the man who has single-handedly recreated a new ecosystem.

Payeng talks like a trained conservationist. In fact, he is one, but his training was exclusively hands-on. “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?”