There is an old jungle saying in these parts. Of a tigress who stalks. Of a tigress who rules Ranthambore. Of a tigress whose majesty is assured as much by the gaze of millions she arrests with the distinctive ‘fish’ mask outlining her eyes, as the YouTube clips of her legendary exploits: her jaws choking a 14-foot crocodile lifeless here, her snarl warding off a predatory male in defence of her cubs there. The survival of the tigress, goes the old jungle saying, is the survival of the tiger.
That’s perhaps why the Machli we know, a 14-year-old marked officially as T-16 at Ranthambore National Park, is actually the daughter of the original tigress by that name. But that little detail doesn’t matter. The legend of Machli as the world’s most photographed cat with stripes, as she’s regarded, has survived a generation, and there are many who wish it would last another. After all, the tiger’s survival is a cause dear to us all.
WILD IN RHYTHM
Machli’s Facebook page does not have 150,000 fans for nothing. She is the world’s oldest documented tiger alive. Hundreds of photographers attest to her fame, helped along in no small measure by the picturesque setting against which she has spent a life being captured on film, the deceptive serenity of the lake territory along an Aravali ridge crowned by the imposing ramparts of the Ranthambore Fort.
Says Fateh Singh Rathore, a conservationist who has spent 50 years in Ranthambore and gave Machli her name: “She has made Ranthambore perhaps the greatest place on earth to view the tiger because of its terrain of grassland and lakes.” The terrain offers very little cover from prying onlookers, and Machli’s lack of camera shyness has given dozens the thrill of watching a big cat hunt in broad daylight. “She is totally oblivious of humans in a jeep,” says Rathore, “often even using the vehicle as a shield, moving alongside it before breaking into attack-mode and killing prey.”
It’s a rarity that has given Machli the honour of starring in three documentary films, the latest being S Nallamuthu’s Tiger Queen, not to mention a ‘lifetime achievement award’ bestowed upon her by Travel Operators for Tigers (Toft), a UK-based travel industry lobby that estimates that she alone has added $10 million over the past decade to Ranthambore’s local economy because of the popular draw she is. If it’s a pity she did an Aamir Khan at the award ceremony, a bigger pity than her no-show is her no-share in the cash coming the park’s way. “Machli is a living legend. She has proven beyond doubt her worth both to her kith and kin, but also her economic worth to India,” says Julian Matthews of Toft, hopeful that the $10 million figure will make beancounters take a good look at the value of Indian wildlife.
The value of Machli’s own life, however, is something only her fans can fully appreciate. For they know that she may not have much time left. She has wowed millions with her agility, her grace, her art of the ambush… and her ageing presence by a lakeside forest post, picking up the occasional bait left tied up for her by the forest department, is a heart rending sight. She has barely half a canine left today, and her growl does not reach very far.
NO FEARS, NO TEARS
It wasn’t always like this. Ask anyone who has seen Machli in the prime of her hunting youth. At the heart of any good kill is an ambush achieved through a series of cunning concealments. And Machli knew the topography of the lakeside area like the marks of her pug. From the moment she lowered herself to a crouch, shoulders hunched, white ear tips pricked to attention, the end of her tail twitching ever so slightly, to the slow tension of the stealthy stalk and sudden ontransformation into a blur of an attack, it was hypnotic to watch. The poor deer or rabbit would be an inevitable fluffy mass with a red trickle.
“This is a remarkable cat,” says Aditya Singh, a noted wildlife photographer who has been on Machli’s trail since she was a cub, “Bear in mind that over the last three years, she has lost most of her canines, and yet not only has she managed to hunt beautifully, she also brought up her last litter without a problem.”
By way of example, Singh narrates the tale of a sambar deer hunt just last spring. It happened in Bhoot Khurra, a glen in the heart of the park. Two days later, T 28, a ‘star’ male tiger, tried to snatch away Machli’s kill—and she fought back with a ferocity that stunned him. “This was the evening of 1 April 2009. We were fortunate to be in the right place when the fight happened. The star male, though just a year ago would not have had a chance against her, is young and at his peak. But Machli held her ground. It is almost impossible for an old female to defend her kill from a young male. Yet, she has done it time and again.”
The tigress’ most spectacular fury, however, has been directed at lakeside crocodiles. “She has killed at least eight crocs,” says Salim Ali, an award-winning forest guide at Ranthambore who has perhaps seen more Machli kills than any man alive, “She attacks the big crocs by getting astride them, and while they too put up a vicious fight, the outcome is always the same—a ripped throat and a dead croc.” In his book, there is no better evidence of her “supreme lack of fear and absolute domination of the forest”.
THE FIRST FAMILY
The tigress’ most amazing show of grace has always been in defence of her cubs. She has had several litters, and almost all have survived to adulthood, thanks to her maternal instincts. Two of her female cubs have recently been transferred to Sariska Tiger Reserve, ensuring a dynastic legacy beyond Ranthambore.
But then, there is little to say that the dynasty’s future is assured. The jungle, alas, is a cruel place. Human tolerance is often scarce even in a wildlife sanctuary. Earlier this year, two male tigers were poisoned by villagers in retaliation for cattle theft, as they saw it. Such capital punishment is a shock to wildlife lovers. But to people in Bodal village on the park’s periphery, it’s economics. “Goat meat sells for Rs 220 per kg,” says village elder Phukrajji, looking splendid in a colourful Rajasthani turban amidst his cattle, “We get only Rs 300 per goat killed by a tiger or leopard, and that too only after we get a forensic examination to prove that a wild animal lifted our cattle.” A good tiger, evaluated thus, is a dead tiger.
The jungle is a cruel place as a natural habitat too. Machli can sense that her days are drawing to an end. Many years ago, it was she who had bared her fangs to oust her mother, the original Machli, from her 40 sq km domain around the fort and lakes. It was she who had had the privilege of a long 11-year reign since; anything that moved—wild boar, sambar, chital deer, crocodiles or even porcupines— was hers and her cubs’ to feast on.
Not long ago, the ageing Machli had to face the inevitable. Her own ouster. Perhaps it’s in the natural order of things, or even an endorsement of the old jungle saying about the tigress who stalks, that she has been dethroned by her very own daughter, Satara.
It started as a territorial skirmish, but an overpowered Machli found herself banished to the far side—a patch that’s barely a fourth of the domain that was once hers. There are no frolicking cubs here for Machli to watch out for. There is not much to hunt. Starvation is not far.
One of these days, Ranthambore will break into a chilling cacophony of langoor shrieks and sambar calls. It would be the sound of fear; Machli would’ve been correctly identified, but this time, it would be a false alarm.