Catch a Tiger by Its Tale

Of Naresh and other famous Indian striped cats
Wild Stardom
LIVING OFF HER FAME  Machli, famous for having killed a crocodile in her heyday, is fed bait to help her survive

JUNGLE BOOK ~ The country’s oldest tiger is dead. Naresh, Delhi Zoo’s main attraction for the past seven years, was 21. He died last week as a result of multiple organ failure, confirms zoo veterinarian Dr N Panneer Selvam. The average lifespan of tigers in captivity is about 17 years, while it is about ten years less in the wild, where survival till old age is difficult.

Naresh’s death has left Delhi Zoo with only one male tiger, Ramu, who is 18 years old and well past reproductive age; that four tigresses in the zoo are all ready to mate is of no interest to him. To solve this problem, the zoo plans to induct a younger tiger as soon as possible. Naresh, however, will not be missed in that context. Longevity was not his only claim to fame. His aggression was another. He was way too ferocious to mate with domesticated
tigresses, and would instead attack them. “Perhaps that explains Naresh’s long life,” quips a senior zoo official.

As one of India’s famous tigers, though, he shall surely be remembered. Of course, the country has had many other striped cats who achieved fame, and almost all of them have had peculiar relationships with humans. Some were famous for the lives they claimed. The Champawat Tiger, who was actually a tigress, killed 430 people in the region that is now called Uttarakhand before she was hunted down by Jim Corbett in 1907. She holds a Guinness Book record for the highest number of human fatalities caused by a tiger.

Those of recent times are renowned for milder behavioural habits. Take the case of Ranthambore’s 15-year-old Machli (‘fish’ in Hindi), aka T-16. She is now fed bait to help her survive in the sanctuary and is famed for having hunted a 14-foot crocodile in her heyday by snapping its thick neck. For 10 years, she was in control of a 40 sq km territory of the Aravali Ridge around Ranthambore Fort, including the fort’s ramparts and stepped descent to the lake next to it. She had displaced her own mother of the same name to gain this territory, and has recently been pushed out by her daughter Sundari.

Machli’s popularity among humans, however, had to do with her comfort level with the two-legged species, and how she held lensmen (and women) in awe of her grace. She would shrug off any sign of human presence, going about her life with elan. There have even been reports of her hiding behind a tourist vehicle to shield a hunt. She has 150,000 followers on her Facebook page, which keeps tabs on her life even long past her prime. Her genes have spread far and wide across the area, and two of her female cubs have been transferred to Sariska Tiger Reserve to repopulate it with big cats. Her offspring have taken well to Sariska.

Tiger conservationist and wildlife campaigner Belinda Wright remembers the legend of Genghis, a male who prowled the forests of Ranthambore back in the 1980s: “He would hunt sambhar in the water and hated being watched while he ate.” She sees a distinct set of traits common to India’s famed tigers. Their flamboyance, above all. “They seem to be exhibitionists,” she says.

Tigers today are not just few, they are also scattered. India’s latest tiger census puts the count at 1,706 striped big cats in the country’s 39 designated tiger reserves, half of which are so sparsely populated that they have an average count of just five.

In the 1970s, ‘Billy’ Arjan Singh, the late hunter-turned-conservationist who had his base camp at Dudhwa National Park (DNP), tried an interesting experiment. He was of the view that small isolated pockets of tiger population would lead to inbreeding and resultant genetic problems. So, for the first time in India, Billy let a captive-bred cub loose in the wild. The idea was to show that artificial re-stocking was possible as a way to refresh the overall gene pool. 

Billy began raising a female cub from Twycross Zoo in England, named her Tara, and in 1976, when she was three months old, took her to Tiger Haven, his camp near DNP. He would take her out for free range walks in the forest to reawaken her wild instincts. Tara made her first kill when she was 17 months old. Billy took extra care that she did not get too familiar with humans or lose her inhibitions of the non-wild. Tara had four cubs in the wild.
Tara grew famous alright. As an adult, she was a terror for locals in the area. She was blamed for attacking farmers on sugarcane fields and killing cattle. People’s worst fears were realised when Tara allegedly turned into a man-eater and was held responsible for 24 human deaths in the area. Billy adamantly denied the charges against her, but in vain.

RL Singh, the park inspector then, shot a tigress on 9 November 1981 who he claimed was Tara. The tigress’ body was mounted for display at his residence as a measure to reassure locals of the man-eater’s death. However, doubts persisted on the animal’s identity. A committee of Indian tiger mavens rejected this trophy as being Tara’s body. Much later, Billy would claim that Tara died only in 1992, and that he saw her remains in the forest. Her legend, of course, survives her—as also the question of whether Billy’s experiment was a success.