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R.I.P. Machhli

R.I.P. Machhli
Having several close encounters  somewhere deep in my heart I knew that this could probably be Machhli’s last season… Despite knowing that age is fast catching up with Machhli and she may cross the river any now and then… I never wanted to accept that it is time for her to go…

As came the day which I never wanted to witness… 18th August 2016, the day Queen left for happy hunting grounds… An era has come to an end… She has said goodbye to the world, to her millions of fans around the globe… and with heavy heart the world has bid adieu to the queen… Sadly, there will be no more sightings of Machhli. 

We had booked alliance de francaise on 12th august it was hardly believed that the premier to the film which was to be sawn on 21st  of august for the longest living tigeress in the wild was need hurried editing, with the film would have run as original. 

Memories entangle me as I sit and rewind my memories, the first that flashes on my mind is 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 cubs on a golden silhouette near the Rajbagh lake of the park… The memory I cherish the most… 

With Machli since she was a cub, till my last meeting a few month’s ago gave me premonition this being the last meeting.

Machhli has a beautiful fish shaped mark on left side of her face and that is how she got the name. Her contribution to Ranthambore is undeniable. Machhli has given eleven cubs to the reserve forest in the four times she has 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 only adds to the legend of Machhli.

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. Perhaps she had gone in to see how humans live.

I have been observing her quite closely from the time when she was a cub of few days; the sheer pleasure this magnificent tigress has given me is immeasurable. And it’s time for me to record my own observations of her.

 I remember sighting her sometime in late 90’s. 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 three of 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 claim 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.

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. 

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 13th August 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 did not improve. As Machhli was lying over a grassy patch and was incapable to stand up or walk, one of her legs developed a hole which lured maggots to swarm over and attack the wound.

She breathed her last on August 18 2016…. Her magnificent journey has come 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 left… Ranthambore will never be a same place for me after her…Though I was preparing myself for this inevitable eventuality but it’s painful to accept her demise… she will be alive in my heart and memory 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 www.rahejagroup.org) 
Navin M Raheja

Navin M Raheja

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