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The legend of yesteryears

It was the month of February in 2016. Having several close encounters, somewhere deep in my heart I knew that this could probably be Machhli's last season. And despite knowing that age was fast catching up with Machhli, I still could not accept that it was time to let her go…

And abruptly enough, came the day which I never wanted to witness… August 18, 2016, the day Queen left for happy hunting grounds… An era had come to an end… She said her final goodbye to the world, to her millions of fans around the globe… and with a heavy heart, the world bid adieu to the queen… Sadly, there couldn't be more sightings of Machhli.
On August 12, 2016, while we had booked Alliance de Francaise, it was hardly believed that the documentary film on the longest living tigress (in the wild) stipulated to premier on August 21, which had the need of hurried editing, had to eventually run unedited. And my very dear friend and leading theatre and film personality Tom Altar, had graced the occasion as the chief guest.
Memories entangled me as I sat down rewinding my memories, the very first that flashed in my mind was of her as a very small cub in the caring and gentle jaws of her mother… and then of 2002, when I sighted her with three of her own cubs on a golden silhouette near the Rajbagh lake of the park… The memory I cherish the most with Machhli since she was a cub, till my last meeting a few month's ago gave me premonition this could be our last rendezvous.
Machhli had a beautiful fish shaped mark on the left side of her face and that was how she got the name. Her contribution to the Ranthambore wildlife remians undeniable. Machhli had given eleven cubs to the reserve forest in the four times she delivered. In a country, where tiger conservationists seem to be slowly losing the battle against falling numbers, her contribution to the rising population of tigers in the reserve had only added to the legend of Machhli.
No other tiger in recent memory had captured as much public attention as Machhli. Some years back, the media was suddenly awash with stories of Machhli strutting out of a hotel room in Sawai Madhopur, the property located at a stone's throw away from her former territory. Perhaps she had gone in to see how
humans live.
I had been observing her quite closely from the time when she was a cub of few days; the sheer pleasure this magnificent tigress had given me is immeasurable. And it was time for me to pen down my own observations of her.
I remember sighting her sometime in late 90's. Back then, she was a cub, learning the tricks of the trade — or jungle survival techniques — from her mother. It was fun to see her ambling on the banks of the lake opening up to Jogi Mahal. Several wonderful evenings I had spent watching the antics of Machhli. She had by then become a sub-adult and quite popular with the tourist crowd.
One thing that struck me even then was Machhli's temperament. She would always be game for photo sessions. At times, it seemed she was posing for the shutter-bugs!
And then came that moment which hurled Machhli to overnight international stardom. Of course, fate played a big hand in the event but all of a sudden Machhli found herself to be the cynosure of all eyes and subject of numerous articles worldwide. This was the time when filmmakers trooped down to Ranthambore, eager to capture this very special tigress who had returned from the jaws of hell!
I am sure most of my regular readers know what I am referring to — the marathon fight which Machhli had with a deadly crocodile. The battle between a tiger and a crocodile was an unheard phenomenon till then and this one took place in broad daylight, in clear view of several tourist Gypsies. In the end, Machhli killed the croc and took a victory march into the bush. However, in the fight, she had lost three of her canines — a tiger's most valuable asset in bringing down the prey. The crocodile slayer was the title she was bestowed upon by the media, which remained with her for several seasons.
In a matter of days, Machhli became the most sought-after tigress in the entire Ranthambore. A trip to the national park without sighting her was considered an absolute waste of time. I had a faint suspicion that even Machhli was somewhat aware of the extra-attention being paid to her by all and sundry and enjoyed every bit of it!
Many more years passed; Machhli remained the star attraction of Ranthambore. This is important for another reason: barring another legendary tigress, 'Sita' of Bandhavgarh, the popular tigers in any national park or reserve have invariably been males.
But all good things must come to an end, and Machhli was no exception. Some seven or eight years ago, she was forced to leave her territory. It was her own daughter, T-17, who pushed her out and staked claim to what had belonged to her mother all this while. But that is what happens in a tiger's world all the time — survival of the fittest.
Two dramatic things surrounding the tigress took place between September 2013 and February 2014. In an unheard of gesture, the Indian government released a postal stamp commemorating Machhli for her exemplary contribution to tourism. I don't recall any other tiger anywhere else in India being accorded such an honor; it was obvious that the state machinery would not let people forget the Ranthambore star
in a hurry.
The second incident involved the sudden disappearance of Machhli. This was in February of 2014. For around 23 days, there was no whereabouts of the tigress. While the newspapers and TV channels went berserk over the sudden disappearance of India's most famous tiger, the forest department of Ranthambore spread out in several teams in the area of her dominance, searching her. They didn't find anything, not even her pugmarks. Recurring questions like whether she had died untraced or had been poached or killed by another tiger remained unanswered for 25 days. A pall of gloom had descended on Ranthambore.
And then, on the 26th day, she was discovered alive as abruptly as she had vanished! Tom Alter, who was in Ranthambore with the team members of Raheja (working on the film on Machhli for our project Jungle Ki Kahaniyan) was among the first to spot her in a ravine, along with a team of forest officials headed by Mr Daulat Singh.
As it later transpired Machhli had been driven out of whatever little territory she had been left with – and had spent the past 25 days in a small valley. That she had managed to defy death all these days in an obscure jungle stretch once again spoke loudly of her character, her uncanny ability to stay afloat and her unbounded lust for life.
On March 6, 2015, while availing my special film shooting permission, I concurred with Mr YK Sahu, the then field Director of Ranthambore and was allowed to meet Machhli in her current territory.
We had brought a full grown Neelgai which had fallen prey to the village dog pack. It was a good fifteen minutes of repeated calling by Mohan Singh before we got a sambhar call some 3 km down from a distant valley that gave the first indication of her having heard our call.
Thereafter, repeated alarm calls from a distant monkey pack, chital and sambar, it was confirmed that she was moving towards us. As she reached within a kilometer, she responded and then we saw her walking towards us as she entered an open patch down some half a kilometer away.
It was a really exciting moment as she encircled us within one meter of our gypsy as if asking for the whereabouts of the bait we had brought for her.
As we again and again gestured, she ultimately looked back and found the dead Neelgai. After a thorough inspection of the carcass and giving us ample opportunity for some good photographs, she picked up the neelgai carcass by the neck and vanished into the thicket to binge on a hearty meal.
Darkness had descended, so we decided to leave her at that juncture and go back. I closely noticed that old age had even affected her eyes; one of which was completely blinded because of cataract. Sadly, that was my last encounter with her.
During her last few months, she had gone back and revisited her old hauntings and the dominant ruling tigers and tigresses of those territories seemed to have accepted her as the granny of their lot thereby not getting into conflicts with her during her last visits.
Machhli lived like a superstar and gracefully dimmed her lights in the arena she performed in her hay days.
Machhli was found in Ama Ghati area on the park's western periphery, in a feeble condition on August 13 2016… The forest staff, which cordoned off the area, was monitoring her condition and trying to feed her, but she only consumed water and her condition kept on deteriorating. As Machhli lay dying on a grassy patch, incapable to stand up or walk, one of her legs already had a maggot-infested wound.
She breathed her last on August 18, 2016… Her magnificent journey finally came to an end. She was cremated after post-mortem at Ama Ghati check-post on the periphery of the park, which had become her territory since 2014.
Alas, The queen had left the park of Ranthambore and the place could never be the same for me after her…Though I had sort of prepared myself for this inevitable eventuality it was still painful to accept her demise… her memoirs are still alive in my heart and perhaps would stay forever…till we meet again in God's abode.
(For already published stories and films on wildlife by the writer, which have run on National Geographic channel, Doordarshan National channel and Doordarshan (India),please log on to ww.rahejagroup.org).
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