On the morning of August 18, I heard of Machli’s passing. I was completely overwhelmed by grief and memories. I realised, a little later, that some of the best years of my life were entangled with her life. We had shared some very special moments together and I felt her loss just like I feel the loss of anyone I am close to. Memories flood in, the earliest of which date back to 1997. It was autumn, and Machli was a few months old when I spotted her prancing behind her mother at the edge of Rajbagh, a ruined summer palace in the heart of Ranthambhore. Her mother was a favourite of Fateh Singh, the former field director of the park, and he told me then that she would be a star. It was he who coined her name Machli as her mother had a fish-like mark on her cheeks that became the daughter’s signature feature.
1997 was a terrible year for Ranthambore, which was reeling under the weight of illegal grazing. Several hundred cattle were camped in the park. Soon, the park management changed, and a new director brought the park slowly to its inviolate state, and just in time. Machli grew up in a safe haven for tigers and was a confident and self-assured young sub-adult, always at her mother’s side, learning from her the art of survival. I remember once, in 1998, as she walked with her mother on the edge of the lotus lake, she kept snarling at crocodiles gliding in the water. By 1999, she had left her mother and also pushed her out to become the ruler of the lake area. It would soon be her turn to reproduce and bring up her offspring.
The turn of the century was very troubling for tigers. Big hauls of tiger skins were reported across India and the booming illegal trade in China had put a price on every tiger’s head. It was in this climate that Machli conceived her first litter. There was a severe drought in 2002 and most of the lakes were drying out; it was at this time that the tiger–crocodile conflict was at its peak. One hot afternoon, while Machli and her cubs fed on a sambar deer, an enormous crocodile tried to join the feast. Machli’s devotion to her cubs was legendary, and to protect her food and her cubs, she raced towards the 12-feet crocodile. Her ferocity was unimaginable and the battle lasted nearly an hour. Machli smashed its head with her powerful paws — the crocodile died a slow death but Machli had rewritten the natural history of tigers for the world to see. It was the first recorded encounter of a fight between these two predators and remains etched in the annals of natural history. Fateh Singh had been proven right — she became a star as several BBC documentaries recorded her life. She was the tigress of the lake and entertained every visitor with her unruffled demeanour. More than anything else, she stirred the soul of those who saw her. Her base for herself and all her litters was the ruined Mughal summer palace at Rajbagh on whose balconies she lazed and watched the world go by. Today, her daughters do much the same.
But troubled times were back, and more and more reports of poaching surfaced from all over India. By 2004, the Sariska Tiger Reserve had lost all its tigers and Ranthambore was not far behind. In the nick of time, Vasundhara Raje, chief minister of Rajasthan, declared a red alert emergency in Ranthambore and armed police were rushed in to protect the buffer. Machli survived the worst crisis in Ranthambore’s history and continued to produce more litters.
But that was not all. Because of poor management decisions, she saw 10 of her companion tigers moved out to Sariska. All these changes caused trauma in the tiger society but she continued her remarkable reproductive success. In her last years, along with her sons, daughters and grandchildren, she added at least 16 tigers to Ranthambore’s population. What would have happened to Ranthambore without her is unimaginable, but she rode out the crisis years, and finally handed the prime range of the lake areas to her daughters to fight it out. She moved several kilometres away to lead the last years of her life. Her teeth were worn out — one was broken, and as the years rolled by, she lost all of them and still managed on occasions to kill and eat deer. Though she was helped by the park management, I still could not believe her ability to survive. By the end of 2015, she was the world’s longest living wild tigress. I saw her in early 2016, scaling a mud wall with such surety — it was just astonishing. Twice in her last year of life, she walked back to her original range of the lakes, spending a week each time at her old haunts. Few other tigers fought with her. They seemed to accept the fact that she was the grand old lady of the lakes.
Twenty years is a long time to share with a tiger, and many forest guards, guides and jeep drivers will miss her sorely. We have all been wiping our tears. She had an aura that enveloped the beholder. What can we all learn from her life? Work with a unity of purpose, protect precious tiger turf across the country, intensify rigorous field science, create, innovate public-private partnerships that keep our wilderness safe, outsource areas for management and partner with local communities to minimise damage. Can we do it? Yes, but only if there is a change in the mindsets of both bureaucrats and politicians. The time for passing files is over. Machli’s passage is the end of an era and a new generation of tigers is waiting for a new and dynamic policy that keeps them safe. There is not a moment to lose.