Machhli and her magic: The tigress who renewed Ranthambhore’s success story

  • Valmik Thapar
  • Updated: Aug 18, 2016 20:57 IST
Machli was also known as the‘ Lady of the Lake ’, as she was typically found along the water territory of Ranthambore. (Photo: Machli’s Facebook page)

She was given her name by the late field director Shri Fateh Singh Rathore as her mother had a fish-like design on her face and machli means fish.

Machhli turned into an adult at the turn of the 21st century and her very best years were spent guarding prime areas below the Ranthambhore Fort and around a series of three lakes.

Centred in the middle of this area is the Rajbagh Palace, where kings and queens in times gone by lived. This summer palace became a citadel for her till 2011.

In pics: Machli, India’s oldest surviving tigress, dies at 19

It was her primary day shelter from where she looked out from Mughal arches and chatris at the ramparts of the fort and watched crocodiles glide by and deer graze below. This was the splendid setting in which she lived.

The turn of the century was a difficult moment and poachers were rampant across western and central India. By 2004, Sariska tiger reserve lost all its tigers due to poaching and Ranthambhore lost half of its tigers for the same reason.

Machhli survived this crisis and her remarkable reproductive success regenerated the tiger population.

How she managed this feat, I will never know but what she gave back to Ranthambhore at a critical moment of time can never be forgotten.

Till 2012, all her male and female cubs grew to adulthood and started their own families that renewed Ranthambhore’s success story. She was directly responsible with her sons, daughters and grandchildren for bouncing Ranthambhore’s tiger population by at least 16.

She was also a master predator and left a huge impact in the annals of the natural history of wild tigers. She was the first tigress in the world to attack a 12-foot crocodile that was edging towards her prey and her cubs.

The battle lasted an hour and revealed her incredible devotion to her cubs and their protection. She ripped the crocodile apart.

She slowly became the star of endless BBC films that were broadcast to millions across the world. There is no other tigress that provided such an education on the tiger’s natural history as she did.

The true campaigner for tiger rights! She ruled the lakes of Ranthambhore with an iron fist and tolerated no intrusions. Even big male tigers got the brunt of her anger and the respect she commanded was legendary.

But slowly age takes a toll and as she crossed the age of 12 her canines were worn out and one of them was broken. She handed her prime territory to her daughters, who over the years fought for the area, while she vanished many kilometres away to lead the last years of her life.

Machhli from my records was the longest living wild tigress in the world and when she died on the morning of August 18 she left behind a void.

The most-clicked tigress featured in documentaries and a postal stamp. (Photo: Machli’s Facebook page)

I celebrate her life for what she accomplished over nearly 20 years that few humans could ever do. No scientist, conservationist, NGO or forest department has ever contributed to Ranthambhore and its success like Machhli.

I was privileged and fortunate to have spent many years following her footsteps and understanding the intricacies of her life and her passing is like losing someone who is really close to you. Yes, I am emotional about tigers and humanise them. When you are with them you share long periods of time and emotion as endless encounters unfold before your very eyes, be it the devotion of the mother, the hunting prowess, the warmth and love that are generated for the cubs and the ability to defend your turf-- and the connect is not just deep but beyond definition.

Even as I write this piece on the day she died, I am moved to tears at her grace and elegance and amazing good nature especially with the hordes of human observers that followed her life for so many years. She was never aggressive even to the most intrusive of visitors. I know many that will miss her sorely.

What have I learnt from Machhli’s life? Tigers like Machhli walk on the richest land in India full of natures treasures and this includes a wealth of trees and living organisms and endless reservoirs of water that are all irreplaceable. It is this land of the tiger that therefore sustains any quality of life for all humans. Let’s learn to protect it and sustain it for future generations.

These are the areas that inspire, these are the areas that will be providers for the future. New and innovative partnerships that defend these tiger turfs are vital. With the passing of Machhli, an era has ended but what we need is a new thinking in both politician and bureaucrat. A way forward that respects both tigers and people and where governments learn how to be wise and partner the non- governmental sector with trust and respect. After 40 years of serving wild tigers I am still waiting for this to happen and my fingers are crossed that somewhere the magic of tigers like will create innovative interventions that secure the tiger’s future.

(Author and naturalist whose forthcoming book “Living with tigers” will be published this November)

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