I never feel danger in the forest. It’s my biggest home. You will have to kill me first before you kill the trees.

India’s Molai forest is home to countless species of animals and plants.

But the lush habitat, which stretches for 1,360 acres, was once very different. Deforestation and a devastating flood had wiped the land of life.

Everything changed when a 16-year-old boy pledged to be its fiercest protector.

In 1979, Jadav “Molai” Payeng chanced upon a pile of dead snakes in the area. He found out that the reptiles suffered, without trees to shield them from the blazing sun.

Payeng asked the Forest Department if they could plant some trees. Officials said it was too difficult a task.

Still, Payeng did not give up. He gathered seeds and young plants in the village, and sowed them. When he moved further away, he woke up in the wee hours to continue planting. It was back-breaking work.

Decades later, Payeng, the son of cattle farmers, defied the odds. The once arid plot of land near the Brahmaputra river became an oasis for animals including rhinos, elephants and tigers.

“I never feel danger in the forest. It’s my biggest home. You will have to kill me first before you kill the trees,” Payeng says.

“It’s not as if I did it alone. You plant one or two trees, and they have to seed,” he adds. “And once they seed, the wind knows how plant them, the birds here know how to sow them, cows know, elephants know, even the Brahmaputra river knows. The entire ecosystem knows.”

Payeng received several awards for the remarkable feat. He has also been the subject of books and films, such as 2013 award-winning documentary “Forest Man”.

Locals gave Payeng the nickname “Molai” (which means ‘forest’). It pays tribute to one man’s grit, compassion and unyielding love for nature, that will touch the hearts of generations to come.

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