Most people who have visited Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan will have a Machli story. I too have mine. On a hot morning of May 2014, my daughter and I had a rather casual but long encounter with the celebrity tigress, believed to be the oldest tiger in the wild.
This year, Machli turned 20, which is remarkable because on an average, tigers live for 10-15 years in the wild.
Though there is no definitive record of Machli’s date of birth, my tiger-man Mohan Singh, who joined the park in 1985, and has monitored Machli since she was a cub, said that he first sighted the litter Machli was part of in November 1996. But Machli was identified only in February, 1997. Some records, however, claim the tigress, whose code name is T-16, was actually born in the monsoon of 1997.
The tigress’s name means fish in Hindi – an unusual name for a predator. But Singh says Machli was actually given her mother’s name.
“We recognise tigers by distinct stripes that form shapes like a 6 or a 8 or some letters of the alphabet,” said Singh. “Only we know that…Her mother was given the name because of a fish sign on her left cheek. The name just stuck. Machli was the mother’s name, but the daughter made it famous.”
Singh revealed that the legendary tigress has a unique identification sign of her own too. “Machli has a stripe that is like the digit 4 in Hindi,” said Singh. “This is the first time I am telling someone.”
Queen of Ranthambore
The park official spoke of Machli’s family pretty much like it was his own. He rattled off her family tree.
When Singh first joined the park, he was introduced to Padmini, who got her name from the Padam Talao (lake) around which she lived. She was an old tigress, and soon died. Padmini had a granddaughter called Noorjehan, said Singh, and Machli senior was one of Noorjehan’s cubs, who was born with two others in Zone 5 of the park’s 10 designated safari zones. “These three cubs lived around Ranthambore fort,” said Singh. “Machli’s daughter, T-16, was named after her.”
The lakes in Ranthambore are full of crocodiles, which prey on the local sambar deer, just like tigers do. This can lead to fights over prey.
Machli became an even bigger celebrity after an incredible encounter with a 14-foot crocodile at Rajbagh in Zone 3, which was caught on camera. The tigress pounced on the crocodile, twisted it and killed it by biting into the back of its neck.
Machli has had other famous moments. One was in 2009, when a young, male tiger wanted a sambar that she had killed. Machli, then a 13-year-old matriarch, had to submit to the tiger, but not without a fight, which was caught on still camera.
Featured in many short films and documentaries, the tigress was awarded the Travel Operators of Tigers Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009 after it was estimated that she brought the park an income of $10 million a year.
But Machli is not only about looks and aggression, said Singh, who like many others, refers to her unusual intelligence.
“She is like a human being,” said the park official. “She became a mother at three-and-a-half and had five litters, the highest in Ranthambore, and probably anywhere. She would meet two litters at the same time without letting either litter know. She would hunt for them, and teach them to hunt. This is unheard of.”
It is estimated that at least half of Ranthambore’s 60-odd tigers have descended from Machli.
“She had the best areas, Rajbagh, Padam talao and Jhalra,” said Singh. “That’s why she became the Lady of the Lakes. She reigned over this forest for 13 long years before she relinquished her empire to her daughter and retired to Lakarda. But she still remains the most visible and famous of her dynasty.”
Machli lived at Lakarda for many years until she was challenged by another tiger. She then moved further away and made her home in an even smaller area between Gular Kui and Jhoka/Pilighati.
When I saw her last, Machli had injured herself and had lost her teeth. But she would still try to hunt, walking 10 km every day. Singh would faithfully attempt to track her daily movements. “She recognises me,” said Singh. “She wouldn’t let me get very close but never did anything.”
Age has not withered Machli – her magnificence still attracts people to the park. She continues to be the most famous tiger in the world, who has given a lifetime of stories to tiger lovers. And Machli isn’t done just yet.