Why we should just let Machhli, world's oldest tigress, die in peace

For the past few years, officials of the Ranthambhore national park in Rajasthan have kept a tigress on life-support system. Reason: The big cat is a celebrity and her presence helps the tourism industry. And to make matters worse, the hyperactive, alarmist media just won't let the tigress die in peace.

Representational image. AFP

Representational image. AFP

Call it ignorance, greed, pressure or just compassion; officials have helped the tigress stay alive by offering her bait so that she doesn't die of hunger. They have peppered her territory with remains of livestock ever since the tigress lost her canines and with them the ability to hunt. As a result of their efforts, the big cat (popularly known as Machhli), is now almost 18 years old, nearly three years past the normal life span of a tigress.

But their intervention in the natural lifecycle of the tigress has sparked off a debate with wildlife experts and environmentalists questioning the rationale of Machhli's benefactors and even terming their effort a dangerous attempt at 'playing god'.

Wildlife expert Valmik Thapar, who learnt of the Ranthambhore officials' attempts at feeding Machhli artificially when they wrote to him recently to point out that the tigress had not touched her bait, admonished them for 'gross interference' in the natural processes.

In his response to the officials, Thapar argued that the department had erred in not only keeping the aged animal on artificial feeding mechanism but also in letting her thrive when some other healthy tigress could have replaced her in the territory it occupies in the heart of the sanctuary. There could have been many more cubs in the area if a healthy, young tigress was allowed to claim the territory naturally, he argued.

It seems the wildlife officials played with the entire ecology of the area. They turned the tigress into an animal dependent on what they threw at her, kept her protected in an important territory, shut the door on other big cats who could have replaced her and allowed survival of the meekest.

Are they justified in tweaking with the law of the jungle? As the debate rages, concerned wildlife lovers are now asking a more pertinent question: Why is the tigress being put through the ordeal of old-age? And more importantly, by keeping her at their mercy, haven't the officials converted the wild animal into a glorified zoo inmate?

Blaming the officials alone would be simplistic. There are many factors at work. Consider the media first.

A few days ago, when Machhli went missing, local newspapers created a din. One of them even went to the extent of predicting doomsday for the sanctuary since its most visible animal had disappeared. It whined that tourists would now disappear since they will not be able to sight a big cat, their main reason for visiting Ranthambhore. With so much pressure at work, naturally, forest officials can't even dream of letting the tigress die, even if it means feeding her like a domesticated pet.

There are hundreds of hotels in and around Ranthambhore. Their survival depends on how often a tiger is spotted by visiting tourists. According to people active in the area, for almost a decade Machhli has been the park's usual suspect: whenever somebody important visits it, they rounded her up with the help of bait for a darshan. Naturally, the tourism industry, which survives on Ranthambhore and its tigers, wants her alive for as long as possible.

Machhli's celebrity status is also hurting her. She is not only the world's oldest tigress, but also the most-photographed. Several documentaries and films have been shot with Machhli as the centre of attention. She has been spotted by almost every visiting dignitary, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who saw her in 2005 when he visited Ranthambhore to discuss the threat of poaching on tigers. A pampered life, as the saying goes, is a hampered life.

Among wildlife photographers and journalists, Machhli had earned the tag of the superstar of Ranthambhore. Ironically, her life has begun to mimic the tragedy of an ageing actress. Machhli is old, tired, scared of rivals and at the mercy of humans. But she has to live on to feed an entire industry that leeches off her.

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Updated Date: Feb 13, 2014 10:27:07 IST

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