“…Some of the best years of my life were entangled with her life. We had shared some very special moments together and I felt her loss just like I feel the loss of anyone I am close to. Memories flood in, the earliest of which date back to 1997. It was autumn, and Machli was a few months old when I spotted her prancing behind her mother at the edge of Rajbagh, a ruined summer palace in the heart of Ranthambhore. Her mother was a favourite of Fateh Singh, the former field director of the park, and he told me then that she would be a star. It was he who coined her name Macchli as her mother had a fish-like mark on her cheeks that became the daughter’s signature feature.”
Valmik Thapar, “The Macchli I Knew” 28th August 2016
Anyone who saw her once never forgot her and for those who knew her, Machhli personified a resilience of a species surviving against the perverse onslaught of habitat destruction and poaching that has engulfed tigers the world over. Now confined to less than 10 per cent of their original natural range, the tiger population, the world over, remains a critically endangered species. Machhli, therefore personified hope, and understanding. Her long life, she was the oldest living tiger in the wild in the world – that we know of – served to let scientists, writers, photographers, film-makers and just casual observers see and learn the stuff that tigers are made of.
Machhli reigned over a larger territory of Ranthambhore, for a longer period of time, than any other tigress we know of. Appropriately, she held the lake territories, whence she drove out her mother – and was in turn displaced from by her own daughter (T17) – for an unbroken decade. Littered with the vestiges of history; palaces, tombs and temples, now reclaimed by the advance of the wild, this area of Ranthambhore lies under the shadow of the massive Ranthambhore Fort. The wild has been at war with the historical in these parts, each advancing against the other for centuries. This conflict of topography and historiography has led to the creation of some of the most incredible vistas on our planet. It was around the waters of Padam Talab, Rajbagh, Malik Talab and the heights, ridges and plateaus above them that Machhli gave the world an extraordinary exhibition of tiger behaviour over the duration of her long life.
Perhaps the most incredible – even unbelievable – sighting of Machhli was witnessed, by Jaisal Singh in 2001 when he filmed Machhli in every avatar of the Tiger’s spirit; huntress, protective mother and fierce adversary as she tore through the skull of an offending – and very large – crocodile that had attempted to snatch the kill of a sambar deer she had made for her cubs. That occasion is now part of global tiger lore and is a defining memory of this matriarch.
Believed to have been born in late 1996 and following in the tracks of such legendary names as Noon and Padmini, who also ruled over the Lake territories and were first filmed by Tejbir Singh in the 1970’s, Machhli held this prime piece of “Tiger real-estate” against multiple challenges. These ranged from the regular arrival of hostile males and other sparring tigresses in her territory to the far more menacing threat of human intrusion and the poaching crisis that enveloped Indian wildlife in 2004. This was the time Sariska Tiger Reserve lost its entire population of wild tigers, this was the time that tigers in Ranthambhore avoided humans, this was also the time that Machhli gave birth to her penultimate litter. She brought up at least nine tigers to adulthood, protecting and nurturing them and it was her offspring and descendants that now make up at least half of Sariska National Park’s tiger population, to where they were translocated.
Almost exactly four years ago, writing in the SUJÁN blog, I had commented;
“Over the years, I have hosted dozens of guests and visitors to Sher Bagh and Ranthambhore who possess a surprising degree of information about Machhli, 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.”
Now, a year after her death and in the absence of her physical presence we do miss her familiar gait and manner. She left behind a stable brood of breeding offspring but she also gave all those who saw her a hope that given the right conditions and a little bit of human understanding, tigers can yet survive. “More than anything else,” says Valmik, “she stirred the soul of those who saw her.”