Camera Queen…World’s Oldest Free Living Tiger…The Death Defier…Most Photographed Tigress In The World…No need to guess who I am talking about. It’s Machhli of course, the pride and star of the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan. Many among you would have already encountered her (and I am sure their numbers would run into millions).
No other tiger in recent memory has captured as much public attention as Machhli. Sometime back, 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. Many of my journalist friends found it extremely funny and their headlines and reports reflected their attitude. I thought it was a crowning irony. No gentlemen, what you are seeing now is not the Queen of Ranthambore in her pristine glory. Rather it’s an aged, weakened tigress who has been clawed out of her home range and is trying to find a refuge among the humans.
This could well be Machhli’s last year to migrate to HER happy hunting grounds. For close to 20 years now, I have been observing her quite closely; the sheer pleasure this magnificent tigress has given me is immeasurable. And it’s time for me to record my own observations of her.
Sometime in the late 90s, I first laid my eyes on this wonderful bundle of fur. She was a cub then, 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 to Jogi Mahal. Several wonderful evenings I 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 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 gates of hell!
I am sure most of my regular readers know what I am referring to — the marathon fight which Machhli had with a 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. In the fight, she lost all her canines — a tiger’s most valuable asset in bringing down prey. The crocodile slayer was the title she was bestowed with, which remained with her for several seasons.
In a matter of days, Machhli became the most sought-after tiger in the entire Ranthambore. A trip to the national park without sighting her was considered an absolute waste of time. I have 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, the Sita of Bandhavgarh, the popular tigers in any national park or tiger reserves 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 claimed to what belonged to her mother all this while. But that is what happens in a tiger’s world all the time — the fittest tiger drives.
By 2010, it was amply clear that Machhli was fast approaching the end of her rope. By early 2011, media houses had started working on her obituary; that they have not been able to publish or telecast it till date is a fitting testimony to Machhli’s legendary survival instincts.
Although this is not the time or place for it, I must mention something which has already generated fair bit of controversy among wildlife enthusiasts and experts. The extra measures being taken by humans to keep Machhli alive at any cost. For the past four years or so — ever since it became clear that Machhli could not bring down a prey on her own — the forest authorities have been providing “bait” to her at regular intervals. This has helped keep Machhli alive and in the limelight.
Two dramatic things surrounding the tigress took place early last year. In an unheard of gesture, the Rajasthan government released a postal stamp commemorating Machhli. I don’t recall any other tiger anywhere else in India being accorded such an honour; it is obvious 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 full 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 several teams in her areas. They didn’t find anything, not even her pugmarks. Has she died untraced, has she been poached or has she been killed by another tiger? These recurring questions remained unanswered for 25 days. A pall of gloom descended on Ranthambore.
And then, on the 26th day, she was discovered alive as abruptly as she had vanished! Leading theatre personality Tom Alter, who was in Ranthambore with the team members of Raheja (working on a film on Machhli for our forthcoming 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.
It transpired later that 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 6th March 2015, while availing my special film shooting permission, I concurred with Mr Y K Sahu, the present field Director of Ranthambore and was allowed to meet Machhli in her current territory.
We had brought a Neelgai which had fallen prey to the village dog pack. It was good fifteen minutes of repeated calling by Mohan Singh before we got a sambhar call some 3 kms 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, confirmed that she was moving towards us.
As she reached within about 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 thorough inspection of the carcass and giving us ample opportunity of some good photographs, she picked up the full grown neelgai from the neck and vanished into the thicket to have a hearty meal.
Darkness was descending 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.
This was my last encounter with her as I sit and rewind my memories when I saw her as a very small cub in the caring and gentle jaws of her mother. I know Machhli fans who would like her to live forever. But that is not possible or even desirable. I, for one, would not like to see the erstwhile Queen of Ranthambore checking out of a hotel room.
(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 www.rahejagroup.org).