GUWAHATI, Dec 6 (IANS): A poacher-turned-animal-keeper working in the Manas National Park, located in the troubled Bodoland Territorial Areas Districts (BTAD) of Assam, has been selected for this year's prestigious Sanctuary Asia Wildlife Service Award.
The animal-keeper, Maheshwar Basumatary, popularly known as Ontai, has been selected for the award for his contribution towards wildlife conservation in the BTAD of Assam. The award will be given to him at a function to be held Friday evening in Mumbai.
Founded in 1981 by conservationist Bittu Sahgal, the Sanctuary Asia is a leading magazine on issues pertaining to conservation, wildlife, and ecology. It raises awareness among Indians of their disappearing natural heritage. The magazine also sponsors the Sanctuary Wildlife Awards "Earth Heroes", a Sanctuary Asia initiative, that seeks to honour the extraordinary achievements of ordinary people.
"Ontai, who has been working as an animal keeper with the International Fund for Animal Welfare-Wildlife Trust of India (IFAW-WTI)'s Greater Manas Conservation Project in the national park has been honoured with this year's prestigious Sanctuary Asia Wildlife Service Award," said a statement by the IFAW-WTI.
Ontai, which means 'rock' in Bodo language, owing to his calm and resolute nature, Maheshwar is currently helping hand-rear orphan rhino calves as part of the IFAW-WTI's rehabilitation programme in the Manas National Park.
"I was born in the BTAD region of Assam and had to grow up amidst political unrest that afflicted the whole region early 2000 due to Bodo insurgency. I got married at an early age of 19 without any job in hand and soon after lost my way," said Ontai adding that he had to start helping the poachers as trackers in the Manas National Park.
"Those were difficult times. I was married young, and had two children. My life fell apart when my wife left me after she got to know of what I was doing," said Ontai.
With his life in shambles, he realised the gravity of the situation and decided to turn this misfortune to his advantage and changed the course of his life. He surrendered before the Bodoland administration in 2005 and began assisting the authorities in reviving the national park.
He also assisted the forest department and worked with the Bodoland Forest Protection Force (a community-based organisation) in Manas, before joining the 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 represents the future of conservation in India. He is not merely a son of the soil, but is a defender of the wild. I congratulate him, his family and the IFAW-WTI for incubating such a strong pillar of support for the wildlife of the Greater Manas Landscape," Bittu Sahgal, founder and editor of the Sanctuary Asia magazine.
"It is an honour for us to have amidst us individuals like Ontai," said Vivek Menon, executive director, WTI and regional director, South Asia, IFAW.
"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. 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," Menon said.
"Ontai was brought to us by our veterinarian Panjit Basumatary. Dealing with wildlife is a difficult job, and Ontai has been an invaluable asset to us in many ways than one. A multi-faceted individual, he is also an excellent photographer," said Bhaskar Choudhury, regional head northeast, IFAW-WTI.
During the past eight years Ontai has assisted in wildlife conservation and also helped nab a number of poachers, seize illegal products, helped out with surveys of wildlife, among many others, Choudhury said.
"I thank the Sanctuary Asia team for this honour. I feel extremely fortunate to receive this award, because I know there are many others like me who have turned to help wildlife. I also thank the IFAW-WTI, especially the Greater Manas conservation team, for their immense support and encouragement," said Ontai.