Maheswar Basumatary (Ontai) - the poacher turned animal keeper from Assam

Maheshwar Basumatary (Ontai) (photo: Subhamoy Bhattacharjee, IFAW-WTI)

Maheshwar Basumatary (fondly called Ontai by his colleagues) is a poacher-turned-animal keeper with the International Fund for Animal Welfare-Wildlife Trust of India (IFAW-WTI)’s Greater Manas Conservation Project. He is a tracker, photographer, naturalist and wildlife defender, all rolled up in one. He was honored with 2014’s prestigious Sanctuary Asia Wildlife Service Award for his contributions to conservation in Bodoland.

Basumatary was forced into poaching animals in the 90s when as a 19-year-old he faced the daunting prospect of supporting his family during the days of Bodo insurgency. Born in Bodoland, an autonomous district in Assam, Ontai grew up with strife all round, which forced him out of school. Married at 19, with no job in hand, he fell in with the wrong crowd and turned to helping poachers as a tracker. Known as 'Ontai' among his associates, since he knew the ins and outs of the Manas sanctuary very well, his service was sought by the poachers. But when his wife found out about his source of income which was not honest, she left him.

Basumatary soon came to realise the risks involved in poaching and was overcome by the helplessness of the animals. He ultimately turned away from it to become a passionate protector of wildlife and environment.

Today, he is a reformed poacher who surrendered before the Bodoland Territorial Council in 2005 assisting the authorities in reviving Manas. He assisted the Forest Department and worked with the Bodoland Forest Protection Force (a community-based organization) in Manas, before joining IFAW-WTI in 2009 to assist in the pioneering rehabilitation of a pair of orphaned clouded leopard cubs as part of the Greater Manas Conservation Project. He was also featured in the Nat Geo documentary on the project, titled ‘Return of the Clouded Leopards.’

Ontai receiving Sanctuary Asia Wildlife Service Award 2014
Ontai receiving Sanctuary Asia Wildlife Service Award 2014
During the past eight years that Ontai has assisted in wildlife conservation, he has helped nab a number of poachers, seize illegal products, helped out with surveys of wildlife, among many others. That Ontai has been an inspiration is exemplified by his 18 year old son. Following in on Ontai’s footsteps, the latter is also currently working to help revive Manas.

Fondly known as Ontai, meaning ‘rock’ in Bodo, owing to his calm and resolute nature, Maheshwar is currently helping hand-rear orphan rhino calves as part of IFAW-WTI’s rehabilitation programme in Manas National Park.

Vivek Menon, executive director, WTI and regional director – South Asia, IFAW says, “It is an honour for us to have amidst us individuals like Ontai. Ontai and many of our animal keepers come from difficult backgrounds and yet, have taken to fiercely protect the natural heritage in their areas. Their zeal has not only helped us achieve a number of milestones, but has also given us the strength to keep striving for what we stand for – to secure the natural heritage of India.

"I know there are many others like me who have turned to help wildlife. I thank late Rajen Islary, the founder president of BFPF, who explained to me the importance of conservation. I also thank the Bodoland authorities, the Bodoland Forest Protection Force for accepting me during those years of difficulty." - Ontai.

More about Basumatary here.