During the past decade, most documentary filmmakers have referred to Machhli as the Queen of Ranthambore, and not without reason. The slender, striped big cat enjoyed a huge fan following all over the world. Die-hard Ranthambore lovers considered a trip to the park without encountering Machhli an absolute waste of time. Machhli had beautiful fish shaped eyes and that is how she got the name. But her fame goes far beyond her majestic physical appearance and beauty. The origins of Machhli’s popularity lie in her past.
An extremely rare event in the afternoon of 27 June, 2003 was just the beginning of Machhli’s rise to stardom. She challenged and successfully killed a crocodile in her territory.
Tigers and crocodiles have lived here for centuries, perhaps even millennia, but never crossed each other’s paths. The only fight between the two in living memory has been between Machhli and her opponent, whom she vanquished and killed.
2003 was a drought year. As water bodies in the park began to dry, animals would often foray into each other’s territories looking for food or water. One of the few surviving water bodies in the park lay in Machhli’s territory that she fiercely guarded. Prey was hard to find that year but Machhli never let other cats into her territory. A crocodile targeted her prey and paid with its life. The fierce battle between the two lasted for hours. Machhli killed the crocodile but lost two of her canines, registering her place in the folklore of Ranthambore with her resilience.
Fortunately for many, the incident took place in the presence of dozens of wildlife enthusiasts. A few of them captured it in their cameras, propelling Machhli and some of those who recorded the fight to worldwide fame. Renowned naturalist, photographer and wildlife enthusiast MD Parashar was among them. His exclusive photographs of the fight brought him recognition and added to the legend of Machhli. The lethal fight also cost the fierce tigress two canines – among the most powerful and essential weapons that a wild cat possesses.
“Such is Machhli’s popularity that she even has a Facebook page in her name with lakhs of fans and followers. She roams her territory, Zone Number 5, without a care in the world, unmindful of the cameras focused on her. After her conquest of the crocodile, her gait seems to have become even more magnificent, as though it reflected the pride of that victory,” Parashar had said.
So relentless are her survival instincts that Machhli will not let anyone get the better of her – not even if the opponent is younger and stronger. Her fight with the crocodile is not the only evidence of this. In 2009, a young, male tiger, T-28, faced the wrath of this ferocious tigress when he tried to stake claim on a sambar she had killed. Such was the intensity of her rage that the young tiger was left stunned, say those who witnessed the event. One and a half years ago, the government released a postal stamp with Machhli's majestic face on it. She became the only big cat to have her own stamp, an honour reserved for leaders of men.”
Even as she aged, Machhli tricked death, time and again. Two years ago, on 9 January, the world’s oldest tigress disappeared from Zone 5 of Ranthambore. The news of her disappearance shook not just Ranthambore, it also raised concern across the world. Newspapers, television channels, social media – all were abuzz with Machhli’s disappearance. The forest department and practically everybody at Ranthambore launched a search for the missing tigress. With each passing day, hope faded. For three weeks, there was no sign of the Queen of Ranthambore. The one person who refused to give up hope was Daulat Singh, a well-respected forest officer of Ranthambore.
Some years ago, Daulat Singh had lost an eye after he was attacked by a tiger. But that hadn’t at all diminished his love for tigers. He left no stone unturned in his search for Machhli. One day, the pursuit led him and his team to the Kachida guard post in Ranthambore when suddenly, as though out of the blue, Machhli appeared in front of their Gypsy. She was alive and well and roaming around completely oblivious of the anxiety she had caused. For Ranthambore and her fans, it was a delightful surprise. The next day, when Daulat Singh found Machhli relishing a kill, he heaved a huge sigh of relief. All was well.
Mohan Singh, of the state forest department, who kept a close eye on Machhli, recalled her tenacity. “Seven or eight years ago, Machhli was pushed out of her territory for her own daughter, Tigress Number 17 or Sundari, as she was fondly named, having inherited not just her mother’s beauty and grace but also her fighting instincts. Survival of the fittest, the core law of the jungle, came to play and at that time, Machhli was at its receiving end,” Singh said.
The forest department tended to Ranthambore’s favourite tigress during her last days. She was feeble. Machhli had lost two of her four canines in her fight with the crocodile. The remaining two fell two years ago. It was now impossible for her to hunt on her own. So that she may kill and feed herself, the forest department offered her animals tied to a rope. One guard was always present to look after her. Machhli had given birth to nine cubs during her time at Ranthambore; in a country where tiger conservationists seem to be slowly losing the battle against falling numbers, her contribution to the rising population of tigers in the reserve only adds to the legend of Machhli — Rajasthan boasts of merely 52 tigers.
I had recorded these words leading up to her death: ‘This could well be Machhli’s last season in Ranthambore, she may live on. But, with her canines gone and her body ageing, Machhli is barely able to hunt. Even when she does manage to make a make a kill, she tends to lose it to a healthier and younger tiger. Machhli has used her grit and experience well to go through the seasons of life but she is now fast approaching the end of her magnificent journey. Wildlife enthusiasts pray for another sighting, another encounter with the majestic cat each time they return to Ranthambore. Machhli continues to pleasantly surprise those who fear the worst. That is the stuff legends are made of…’
The author is a wildlife expert and former member of the Project Tiger committee.