Ontai, a former poacher turned animal keeper in India, receives award

Maheshwar “Ontai” Basumataryone of the IFAW-WTI animal keepers who was also featured in the documentary "Return of the Clouded Leopards", was awarded the Sanctuary Asia Wildlife Service Award this past Friday. This is reprinted from a story published in July on the WTI website. – SS

Maheshwar Basumatary a.k.a. Ontai. Photo credit: IFAW-WTIThe civil unrest of the 80's in Assam, India, forced a number of young people to give up their studies and take up professions which weren't necessarily on the right side of the law.

"We were forced to quit school. I never managed to finish my studies and without an education, given the state of affairs in Assam the way they were then, there weren't many alternatives left for me,"

Maheshwar “Ontai” Basumatary says with a distant look in his eyes recalling those dark days in his life.

"I was married at the age of 19 and was without any means to support my family. I fell into 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."

His work earned him survival, but not all was good.

"My wife left me not long into the marriage, when she found out that our source of income wasn’t completely honest,” he says.

A single father, he realised the consequences of his actions and was keen to move away. Things worked out for him, as by then (in the early 2000s) the political situation started to improve.

“In 2005, I surrendered to the Forest Department and BTC authorities. A number of Community-based Organisations (CBOs) had been formed to help revive Manas; I joined one in Kachugaon called Green Forest Conservation," he says.

Ontai with a clouded leopard. Photo credit: IFAW-WTI Dr. Bhaskar Choudhury, Regional Head, Northeast India – IFAW-WTI, recalled the first time he met Basumatary in 2009.

"We were looking for someone to help us with the clouded leopard rehabilitation project,” says Choudhury.

“We needed someone who was not only familiar with the landscape but really knew about the animals, their habitat, and their behaviour. We struck gold with Basumatary, or Ontai, as he would soon be known as in IFAW-WTI."

"He was quite different from the others," Bhaskar says.

"Right from the onset Ontai was someone we could trust, a very disciplined person. He's very soft spoken and it takes a while to get him to open up. But the most important thing for us was that he knew the landscape, understood the project and was a team player, eager and willing to learn and a quick learner.

It hardly took him anytime to learn how to use a GPS or the nuances of a radio collar. And to top all of this, he’s an excellent tracker and shared quite a good rapport with the Bhutanese, which would come quite handy for us as we tracked the clouded leopards all the way to the other side of the border."

"Ontai means 'stone' in Bodo, an entity who's tough” says Choudhury on Basumatary being known more popularly as Ontai among IFAW-WTI members.

“Everyone here will unanimously agree that he is one of the best animal-keepers we have in Manas."

The clouded leopard rehabilitation to date remains the project of which Ontai is most proud.

"It's one of my life's biggest achievements. I got the opportunity to work with great people. For me the best part was that the entire process was documented on video for National Geographic Channel and finally my family and friends could see me on television doing work that they could be proud of," says Ontai with a huge smile on his face.

Ontai says he has remained most proud of his work in rehabilitating  two clouded leopards. Photo credit: IFAW-WTIThe project 'Return of the Clouded Leopard' gave him new lease on life, making all the adversities faced worth the end result of seeing two of these rare cats rehabilitated and released back in the wild. Subsequently, two more clouded leopard cubs were rehabilitated.

“We’ve been working together for five years now,” says Dr. Panjit Basumatari, veterinarian at the CWRC Transit Home, Kokrajhar, where the clouded leopards were initially raised, and a mentor to Ontai.

“While every one of us here is close, I have developed a special bond with Ontai and I consider him like a brother. He is one of the most dedicated people I have ever come across. No matter what you throw in his direction, he will never say no to the work and will take on even the most difficult task as a challenge without any complaints. It’s his love and respect for animals which keeps him going all the time.”

His experiences in the forests are nothing short of amazing.

"While I was monitoring the clouded leopard, one night I accidentally took a wrong path in the dark and the next thing I knew I was face to face with a huge herd of elephants,” says Ontai.

“They literally looked like giant monsters in the dark to me and I ran for my life muttering Ganesh baba's name under my breath. They didn't actually attack me but followed me all the way, sort of toying with me, trying to scare me till I managed to hide in a tree's trunk till dawn.”

"Elephants are really intelligent. They knew I could not harm them and I was more scared of them than they could probably have been of me. They just wanted to show me who truly had the right of passage in the jungle that night," he says.

It’s not just animals that have crossed his path.

"Once when I was cycling back with a colleague in the middle of the night from the Peepso Camp, we came across an insurgent group who seemed to have taken us for their adversaries. In no time, we had bullets flying left, right and centre. I chucked my bicycle and bag right there and immediately lay on my stomach and crawled about 5 km to safety. One of the bullets whizzed past my left ear, and it was buzzing for hours," says Ontai as he shakes his head, as if he can still hear the buzz.

It's not an easy job for Ontai, despite his history of growing up near the forest. It means long hours, monitoring animals for kilometres together, staying in field camps for several months while dealing with the harsh weather conditions and of course animals which inhabit the jungles.

Yet, true to his name, he has no complaints.

"I love my work. Instead of hurting the animals I'm actually helping in saving them now,” says Ontai.

“I don't for a minute regret my decision to surrender and turn over a new leaf. Not only did I save my own life - lord knows what would have happened to me if I were still a poacher - but I helped influence my son to also follow the right path and he's also now working for wildlife conservation with the same NGO I started volunteering with all those years ago. He has made me proud.”

For more information about IFAW efforts to help rehabilitate injured wildlife, visit our project page.

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