Lithe bodies that flex athleticism in their slightest movement, kohl-lined eyes which bore through your frame and a visage that arrests the most confident onlooker into awe inspired paralysis is the effect these magnificent creatures have on all those who chance upon them. A restrained fierceness is their most potent weapon and you will not want to know what unsheathing it feels like.
The loss of their natural habitat and chronic encroachment upon what remains of it, is arguably the most serious challenge faced by tigers’ in the wild. Estimates conclude that less than 9% of the tiger’s original global habitat is still intact. Tack this critical threat to the menace of poaching and illegal trade in animal-parts that poaching feeds and a diabolical situation shapes itself as the future of critically endangered species; and few other species are as menaced, hounded and threatened as the tiger. In addition to these primary causative factors in the dramatic decline of tiger numbers is the natural process of elimination that continues in pockets where tiger’s still roam wild and free, in relative security. Conflict between tigers, death through age and natural causes supply their own steady add-on’s to the piling carcasses displaced by encroachment and killed by poaching. In the midst of all this, lives a tigress, possibly the oldest living tiger in the wild, in the world, who has seen it all, persevered, reproduced and continues to survive.
Macchli, Ranthambhore’s Matriarch, also known, simply, as The Mother has given birth to several cubs, raising at least four litters to adulthood, lived through some of the most devastating poaching crises in living memory, seen off challengers to her realm and survived encounters with her own kind as well as monster crocodiles. Today, her territory may have contracted to a comparatively small area but she continues to live as boldly and magnificently as she always did.
The subject of numerous documentaries, books and articles, Ranthambhore’s Matriarch is still the most sought after sighting, particularly by first time visitors to the Park. Many such visitors come to pay homage to her living presence because she represents an undying, unrelenting spirit that in itself symbolises the raw power and energy of what human imagination perceives a tiger to be composed of. Over the years, I have hosted dozens of guests and visitors to Sher Bagh and Ranthambhore who possess a surprising degree of information about Macchli, though they may never have ventured to Ranthambhore before. Similarly, a sighting of the Grand Old Lady seldom leaves a dry eye for first time visitors. Indeed, there is a clutch of regular Ranthambhore veterans whose only aim in coming here is to photograph, or even just sight our most famous denizen.
Macchli was the longest reigning tigress of the Lake Territories, the area of Ranthambhore that lies under the shadow of the Ranthambhore Fort and holds the three lakes of Padam Talab, Raj Bagh and Malik Talab. Around these waters and along the hillsides, ravines and gorges which abut them, she nurtured and nourished a long line of cubs, some of whom now inhabit various corners of Ranthambhore and have spawned another generation of their own cubs. Other’s among her offspring now roam Sariska, where they were translocated to in recent years. Yet another, the famous Broken Tail roamed to as far as the Mukundra Hills in Jhalawar, an area that has only recently been declared a Tiger Reserve. Driven out of her range by her daughter Sundari, a few years ago, Macchli sought refuge in the cool, jamun laden groves of Lakarda, that formed part of her original territory. As recently as the winter gone by, she even ventured out, to patrol the full extent of her original realm, after a four year hiatus, as though proclaiming her status as Ranthambhore’s premier living legend.
In 2001 Jaisal Singh, filmed a ferocious confrontation between a large ‘Mugger’ crocodile and Macchli, the first documentation of it’s kind, on the edges of Raj Bagh. An encounter at the end of which this record size crocodile forfeited it’s life and Macchli lost a precious canine, a debilitating blow for most predators but a handicap she overcame with her vast experience at making kills through perfect ambushes.
A full life, that is still giving us examples and unprecedented insights into the behaviour of tigers in the wild is the stuff Macchli’s existence is about. Tiger’s are seldom recorded to live beyond the age of fourteen, in the wild. At eighteen, Ranthambhore’s Dowager Queen, continues to hold her own.
Written by Yusuf Ansari.
Photographs from the Sher Bagh photo library.