Should we feed and treat injured, old or ailing animals in the wild? Should we rush to rescue and hand-rear cubs before trying to rehabilitate them in the forest? Or should we trust Nature to know best and not meddle? Nothing fuelled this debate more than the forest department’s attempt to keep Machhli, the iconic tigress of Ranthambore, alive with tethered baits. Where do we draw the line between welfare and conservation?

Her cultivated disregard for crowd and camera can shame any film icon. Over fourteen years, she has been spotted by more than 100 million tourists. A few days every year, tens of thousands of pilgrims walk all over her territory on their way to Ranthambore’s famed Ganesh temple. She couldn’t care less.

She could be the envy of every single mother. Despite being almost always surrounded by crowds, she has deftly raised nine cubs in four litters (some enthusiastically claim five) to adulthood between 2000 and 2008. She fiercely guarded her little ones but rarely charged at people even when they ventured too close for comfort. She held her nerve.

Her courage and determination make her a remarkable survivor, particularly by her species’ dodgy standards. She repeatedly took on deadly marsh crocodiles bigger than her and got the better of them. Even after those mortal combats cost her two canines, she not only continued to hunt and support herself but also fed five cubs in two litters. Physical handicaps starve even dominant tigers to death over weeks. She won most of her battles in the mind.

The trophy photograph for crores of tourists, she has been the biggest advertisement for tiger conservation. In 2009, when she was awarded for lifetime achievement at the British ambassador’s residence in New Delhi (no, she did not attend the event), it was rather conservatively estimated that she had generated $10 million for the local economy through tourism. But that’s not all.

Almost single-handedly, she has steered India’s fragile westernmost population of tigers through an ominous decade. Her bloodline has so far produced at least forty tigers in Ranthambore, including her own nine cubs from three males, and two other females sent to repopulate Sariska. Of these, more than thirty were alive in 2014 and they constitute about 60 per cent of Rajasthan’s present tiger population.

She is the tiger legend: T16 alias the Lady of the Lake alias Machhli.

When I first saw the young tigress at the turn of the century, I did not even know she had a name. Over the years, I watched, photographed and filmed the reigning queen of the three majestic lakes near the craggy fort at the heart of Ranthambore many a time. As tigers disappeared from Rajasthan, with poachers striking at will during 2000–04, and hollow promises crumbled all around, the very sight of Machhli – strolling, stalking, ambushing, still raising more cubs or just minding her own business – was one of the few reassuring constants. We sought to spot her every time we passed by her territory, as a good omen of sorts.

It was a miracle that Machhli raised her fourth litter at the ripe age of eleven and without two canines. However spectacular, all things, even George Harrison knew, must pass. Six years on, all that Machhli has now is half a canine, a little patch of her once vast territory, and some of her indomitable spirit. She still makes occasional kills. But without the tethered baits that the forest department has been offering her for five years now, she would have long been dead.

Except in photos clicked every season by tourists on their Machhli pilgrimage, I have not seen her after 2009. I refuse to watch an amazing wild tiger being reduced to a living relic.

We want to return orphaned cubs back to the wild or keep Machhli alive because it gives us an emotional and moral high. It is not the animals but merely our perception of them (and us) that we want to protect and preserve.

Not many Ranthambore regulars talk about the Sultanpuri tigress (T14) any more. For many years, Machhli’s sister was the prize sighting in Zone 1. Then, she was challenged by T13, one of her three daughters, in 2009. Soon, the mother surrendered her territory. T13 became the new Sultanpuri female and has already raised three cubs of her own.

Machhli was lucky to hang on to about one-fifth of her territory after she was dethroned by her dominant daughter, T17. When the forest department began feeding Machhli baits under public glare, sister Sultanpuri was stumbling away to Bhaironpura where she took refuge at the edge of the national park. Though she was exactly Machhli’s age (from the same litter), nobody lobbied to keep her alive. Away from the tourism zone, Sultanpuri made occasional kills and scavenged some more. Her last known big kill was a buffalo in February 2012. She was last spotted sometime in April the same year.

Sultanpuri’s lonely, helpless end may sadden us. But unlike her sister, she was fortunate to have been left alone. If we agree that the wild are born free, we must learn to respect that very freedom, in life and death and everything in between.

Excerpted with permission from The Age of Endlings: Explorations and Investigations Into The Indian Wild, Jay Mazoomdaar, Harper Litmus.