SHE first caught the eyes of forest officials in the monsoon of 1997, impressing them with her majestic looks and feline agility.
Labelled T-16, she was usually found near the water bodies of Ranthambore National Park and soon inherited the title “Lady of the Lake” from her mother.
It was just one of the many titles she would earn over the next few years, apart from “legendary”, “iconic” and “queen mother”.
“Machli — a marking on her face gave her the name — would hear the noise of jeeps and come strolling,” said Rishikesh, a forest guard who cremated her on Thursday afternoon in the presence of top district officials.
“There were a few moist eyes during the ceremony on top of a hill,” said his colleague Mukesh.
“She last ate around the 12th of this month. We tried to feed her meat but she refused. She had escaped death earlier and so we were hopeful this time, too. A team of ten was keeping a watch on her and had cordoned off the area near her,” said Sudarshan Sharma, divisional forest officer.
Machli had fallen ill two years ago, too, but survived. “This time, we tried to give her medicines in the meat, she just would not consume it. She led a full life. At almost 20 years, she had lived well past the average age for tigers,” he said.
But long before all that, this “queen” ruled the park, quickly becoming the most widely photographed tigress in Ranthambore, with books, documentaries and awards to her name.
“She gave visitors stories to remember,” said Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje.
In June 2003, with Ranthambore in the middle of a drought, a crocodile approached a lake in her territory. Machli first escorted her cubs to safety and returned to fight the 14-foot-long crocodile, emerging victorious after an hour-and-a-half. It earned her a new moniker, “crocodile killer”.
The then chief minister Ashok Gehlot even released a postal cover on her. She also drew crores of rupees to Ranthambore in income, as she lured a steady stream of tourists each year to the site, about 160 km south of Jaipur.
But perhaps, Machli will be best remembered for contributing to the tiger population in these parts, blighted by poachers before the country woke up to its dwindling tiger population. According to officials, she first gave birth to three cubs with Bamboo Ram around the year 2001: Sundari, Broken Tail and Slant Ear. She then mated with Nick Ear who had taken over Ram’s territory. By April 2002, Machli gave birth to her second litter, two cubs named Jhumru and Jhumri. By March 2005, she gave birth to Sharmeele and Bahadur. She is said to have given birth to three more offspring.
So much so, that Travel Operators for Tigers (TOFT), which gave her a lifetime achievement award in 2009, said this April that “Ranthambhore is rocking — and stuffed (overstuffed) with tigers, many of whom are now spilling out to forests including Kota and Kuno Palpur in Madhya Pradesh, often hundreds of kilometres away”; tiger sightings increased four-fold at Ranthambore within a decade.
However, around five years ago, age started taking a toll on Machli and she started losing territory gradually. By the time she died on this rainy morning, she had lost almost all her teeth, too.
“We conducted a post-mortem in the afternoon and cremated her as per National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) protocols,” said Y K Sahu, field director, Ranthambore National Park. Forest officials carried her remains, draped in a stark white sheet, with roses and marigolds resting on it, to the hill. “It took a few hundred kgs of wood and about 200 dung-cakes to cremate her, as 70 constables and other officials stood saluting her,” said Rishikesh.