Photo Credit: Subhamoy Bhattacharjee, IFAW-WTI
Maheshwar Basumatary, fondly known as “Ontai,” by his colleagues, is a tracker, photographer, naturalist and wildlife defender – but he used to be a rhino poacher. While it’s impossible to undo what’s already been done, it’s never too late for a better future. He may have once earned a living wreaking havoc on some of the world’s most endangered animals, but a decade ago, he had a change of heart. In fact, he was even honored with 2014’s prestigious Sanctuary Asia Wildlife Service Award for his contributions to conservation in Bodoland.
Growing up in extreme poverty, by age 19 Ontai had a young family to support. As he’d been forced to quit school early, it left him with little chance of escaping the cycle he was born into. It was then that he turned to organized crime, horrific crimes which threatened to wipe out an entire species.
In a statement, he explained, “I fell into [the] wrong company … of poachers. There was a certain demand for people like me in the market at that time — someone who had grown up in that area and knew the forests like the back of his own hand. I helped these people into the forests and out.”
Over the next several years, Ontai risked everything to help track down and kill rhinos to rob them of their valuable horns, which while proving profitable enough to support his growing family, he says his “job” tore him apart inside. He felt so bad, that in 2005, he turned himself over to authorities, pledging his tracking skills and familiarity with the region to combat the further loss of wildlife to the hands of poachers. Eventually, he joined the International Fund for Animal Welfare – Wildlife Trust of India, becoming what he is today: tracker, photographer, naturalist and wildlife defender.
Today, he is plays a huge part in helping to save the creatures he once sought to kill.
Vivek Menon of IFAW-WTI in a statement, “It is an honour for us to have amidst us individuals like Ontai. Ontai and many of our animal keepers come from a background of difficulties and yet, have taken to fiercely protect the natural heritage in their areas.”
If only there were more poachers who would realize the damage they’re doing to our earth, our precious animals – and even their own souls.
You can watch and learn more about Ontai’s story here on YouTube: