Those of you who know me, or have read my numerous posts, written from the heart of the Kruger National Park, South Africa, will know that I am a lion man. At the end of 2013 I even managed to have my first iBook published entitled ‘The Lions of Londolozi’. I truly believe that I am part lion. A fascination of their relationships, behaviour, evolution, physique, size and beauty drove me to research and write about a particular pride of lions over a two-year period. Images, sound, film, family trees and text convey the true story of the Lion King! My research directed me towards other texts on big cats worldwide: jaguar, snow leopard, leopard and most impressively the tiger.
When I first looked up into the mountain range that towers above Sher Bagh, my heart raced. The word ‘Ranthambhore’ rolled off my tongue so sweetly. I repeated it numerous times, to myself, almost as a way to convince myself that I was here. I was in the home of the world’s largest cat!
The reserve was stunning: dry deciduous forest dotted with vast lakes and monumental remains of temples, forts, palaces and ruins. It is renowned in wildlife circles as the place where it is possible to see a wild tiger happily sprawled out in an ancient temple; a place where pilgrims share their sacred shrines with a plethora of animals; a place where culture, religion and history are so intertwined with the tiger.
A superb network of roads makes it a treat to drive around and a 4-hour game drive flies by. Game drives are conducted in one of two vehicles: the larger Canter and then the miniature, but powerful, Gypsy. It took a few drives to finally see a tiger, but when we eventually got lucky it was one of the most emotional moments of my life.
The sighting was short, but ever so sweet! I could not have asked for better. There she was, sleeping in the cool shade, her gorgeous coat blended in with extraordinary ease. Orange, white and black all blended on the frame of a gigantic predator. She stood up and stretched. She yawned and slowly stepped forward. Her paws were massive. It was then that our guide, Yusuf Ansari, told me that I was looking at probably the most famous, and photographed, tigress in the world! Here she was, Machhli, potentially the oldest wild tiger alive!
She moved closer, completely unperturbed by the vehicles that admired her every move. I was temporarily lost for words. I tried to capture her on film, but found myself shaking at magnitude of the moment. My very first tiger! In an instant the ‘lion man’ had become converted into a tiger lover…
Her movements were a little cumbersome; her spine bent and her hips drooped. At close on 18 years she was showing her age. What she lacked in agility, she made up for in elegance. She was beautiful. The tiger population of Ranthambhore is thought to be sitting at around the 50 mark. By global standards, this constitutes a significant portion of the remaining wild tigers. In terms of tigers per square kilometer, this park boasts one of the most impressive populations left on earth. People travel from all over the world for a chance to get a glimpse of a tiger at Ranthambhore – Machhli is the most sought after of all.
She oozes power and effortlessly commands respect. She slowly traipsed up the rocky embankment and disappeared from view. Returning to her secretive solitary life. She had selflessly gifted a handful of people a most sensational experience. Unbeknown to her, she now had a myriad of new supporters. She is an icon who carries with her the potential, in my opinion, to help save a species.
It was more than I could ever have dreamed of. My first tiger!
Written and photographed by Adam Bannister