Years ago, Maheshwar Basumatary would kill rhinos, stripping them of their horns for profit. Today, he spends his days stalking the animals with only a camera in hand, and his nights nursing rhino calves with a bottle of warm milk.
Basumatary’s journey from rhino poacher to protector is a long and winding road, filled with regret, loss, and at last, atonement.
His story offers a rare look at the human side of poaching, a perspective that’s often lost in the increasingly urgent battle to curb illegal hunting.
Basumatary grew up impoverished in the Assam region of India, dropped out of school early, and by age 19 was married with children.
With civil unrest in the region, he struggled to support himself and his family, and soon became intertwined with the criminal underworld; “I fell into [the] wrong company … of poachers,” Basumatary said in an interview with the Wildlife Trust of India.
“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.”
For years, Basumatary used his knowledge to kill rhinos for their horns, making a small fortune in the process, but at the price of losing his family. His wife, upon learning of his criminal deeds, decided to leave him, making Basumatary a single father.
It took a divine vision for Basumatary to reverse course. He claims God came to him in his dreams, demanding he stop killing animals. Plagued with newfound regret, he began to seek out redemption.
He turned himself over to authorities, pledging his skills in tracking and knowledge of the region to protecting the rhinos from poachers, rather than hunting them down. Eventally, he joined the International Fund for Animal Welfare, serving as a naturalist and photographer.
With his new life came a new nickname, “Ontai,” meaning “Rock,” a nod to his tough nature and his resolution to saving rhinos and righting his own wrongs.
During the ten years Ontai has assisted with conservation efforts, he’s helped capture several poachers, seize illegal caches of animals parts, and assist in surveying wildlife populations. In 2013, he was the recipient of Sanctuary Asia’s Wildlife Service Award for his work protecting wildlife.
Conservationstists hope Basumatary serves as an example to others who grow up in the area to follow the right path. While poaching continues to threaten the Assam region’s wildlife population, Ontai’s story is proof that a life spent saving animals ultimately holds more reward than killing them for money.
“I love my work. Instead of hurting the animals I’m actually helping in saving them now,” Ontai told the Wildlife Trust of India. “I don’t for a minute regret my decision to surrender and turn over a new leaf.”