Machhli: The Last Heroine By Navin M Raheja

Wednesday 1st October 2014

Camera Queen…World’s Oldest Free Living Tiger…The Death Defier…Most Photographed Tigress In The World…
No need to guess who I am talking about. It’s Machhli of course, the pride and star of the Ranthambore
Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan.Many among you would have already encountered her
(and I am sure their numbers would run into millions). Those who have not, I urge them to
proceed to Ranthambore ASAP because time is running out fast for this tiger par excellence.

No other tiger in recent memory has captured as much public attention as Machhli. Early this month, she
grabbed news headlines once again — but for the wrong reasons.Media was suddenly awash with stories of Machhli
strutting out of a hotel room in Sawai Madhopur, the property located a stone’s throw away from her former
territory.Many of my journalist friends found it extremely funny and their headlines and reports reflected their
attitude. I thought it was a crowning irony. No gentlemen, what you are seeing now is not the Queen of
Ranthambore in her pristine glory.Rather it’s an aged,weakened tigress who has been clawed out of her home range
and is trying to find a refuge among the humans.

This could well be Machhli’s last winter. For close to 18 years now, I have been observing her quite closely; the
sheer pleasure this magnificent tigress has given me is immeasurable.And now that Machhli’s imminent end
seems near, it’s time for me to record my own observations of her.

Sometime in the late 90s, I first laid my eyes on this wonderful bundle of fur. She was a cub then, learning the tricks
of the trade — or jungle survival techniques — from her mother. It was fun to see her ambling on the banks of
the lake opening to Jogi Mahal. Several wonderful evenings I spent watching the antics of Machhli. She had by then
become a sub-adult and quite popular with the tourist crowd.

One thing that struck me even then was Machhli’s temperament. She would always be game for photo sessions.At times,
it seemed she was posing for the shutter-bugs!

And then came that moment which hurled Machhli to international stardom.Of course, fate played a big hand in the event
but all of a sudden Machhli found herself to be the cynosure of all eyes and subject of numerous articles worldwide. This was
the time when filmmakers trooped down to Ranthambore, eager to capture this very special tigress who had returned from the
gates of hell!

I amsure most of my regular readers know what I am referring to — the marathon fight which Machhli had with a crocodile.
The battle between a tiger and a crocodile was an unheard phenomenon till then and this one took place in broad daylight, in clear
view of several tourist Gypsies. In the end Machhli killed the croc and took a victory march into the bush. In the fight, she lost all her
canines — a tiger’s most valuable asset in bringing down prey.The crocodile slayer was the title she was bestowed with, which
remained with her for several seasons.

In a matter of days,Machhli became the most sought-after tiger in the entire Ranthambore. A trip to the national park without sighting her was
considered an absolute waste of time. I have a faint suspicion that even Machhli was somewhat aware of the extra-attention being paid to her by all
and sundry and enjoyed every bit of it!

Many more years passed;Machhli remained the star attraction of Ranthambore.This is important for another reason: barring another
legendary tigress, the Sita of Bandhavgarh, the popular tigers in any national park or tiger reserves have invariably been males.

But all good things must come to an end, and Machhli was no exception. Some seven or eight years ago, she was forced to leave her
territory. It was her own daughter,T-17, who pushed her out and staked claimed to what belonged to her mother all this while.But that is
what happens in a tiger’s world all the time — the fittest tiger drives out the weakest.

By 2010, it was amply clear that Machhli was fast approaching the end of her rope.By early 2011, media houses had started working on her
obituary; that they have not been able to publish or telecast it till date is a fitting testimony to Machhli’s legendary survival instincts.

Although this is not the time or place for it, I must mention something which has already generated fair bit of controversy among wildlife
enthusiasts and experts.The extra measures being taken by humans to keep Machhli alive at any cost. For the past three years or so — ever since
it became clear that Machhli could not bring down a prey on her own — the forest authorities have been providing “pada” (a small calf ) to her
at regular intervals.This has helped keep Machhli alive and in the limelight.

Two dramatic things surrounding the tigress took place early this year. In an unheard of gesture, the Rajasthan government released a postal stamp
commemorating Machhli. I don’t recall any other tiger anywhere else in India being accorded such an honour; it is obvious the state machinery would not
let people forget the Ranthambore star in a hurry.

The second incident involved the sudden disappearance of Machhli.This was in February of 2014. For full 23 days, there was no whereabouts of the
tigress.While the newspapers and TV channels went berserk over the sudden disappearance of India’s most famous tiger, the forest department of
Ranthambore spread out several teams in her areas.They didn’t find anything, not even her pugmarks. Has she been poached or has she been killed
by another tiger? These recurring questions remained unanswered for 25 days.A pall of gloom descended on Ranthambore.

And then, on the 26th day, she was discovered alive as abruptly as she had vanished! Leading theatre personality Tom Alter, who was in Ranthambore
with the team members of Raheja Productions (working on a film on Machhli for our forthcoming project Jungle Ki Kahaniyan) was among the
first to spot her in a ravine, along with a team of forest officials headed by Mr Daulat Singh.

It transpired later that Machhli had been driven out of whatever little territory she had been left with — and had spent the past 25 days in a
small valley.That she had managed to defy death all these days in an obscure jungle stretch once again spoke loudly of her character, her
uncanny ability to stay afloat and her unbounded lust for life.

I know many Machhli fans who would like her to live forever. But that is not possible or even desirable. I, for one,would not like to see the erstwhile
Queen of Ranthambore checking out of a hotel room.



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