WON­DER­FUL WORLD: STUN­NING AERIAL PHO­TO­GRAPHS

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ti­gress has given me is im­mea­sur­able. And it’s time for me to record my own ob­ser­va­tions of her.

I re­mem­ber sight­ing her some­time in late 90’s. 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 subadult 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 am sure 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 three of 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 claim 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.

Two dra­matic things sur­round­ing the ti­gress took place early last 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 died un­traced, 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 (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.

On 6th March 2015, while avail­ing my spe­cial film shoot­ing per­mis­sion, I con­curred with Mr Y K Sahu, the present field Di­rec­tor of Ran­tham­bore and was al­lowed to meet Machhli in her cur­rent ter­ri­tory.

We had brought a Neel­gai which had fallen prey to the vil­lage dog pack. It was good fif­teen min­utes of re­peated call­ing by Mo­han Singh be­fore we got a samb­har call some 3 kms down from a dis­tant val­ley that gave the first in­di­ca­tion of her hav­ing heard our call.

There­after, re­peated alarm calls from a dis­tant mon­key pack, chi­tal and sam­bar, con­firmed that she was mov­ing to­wards us. As she reached within about a kilo­me­ter, she re­sponded and then we saw her walk­ing to­wards us as she en­tered an open patch down some half a kilo­me­ter away.

It was a re­ally ex­cit­ing mo­ment as she en­cir­cled us within one me­ter of our gypsy as if ask­ing for the where­abouts of the bait we had brought for her.

As we again and again ges­tured, she ul­ti­mately looked back and found the dead Neel­gai. Af­ter thor­ough in­spec­tion of the car­cass and giv­ing us am­ple op­por­tu­nity of some good pho­to­graphs, she picked up the full grown neel­gai from the neck and van­ished into the thicket to have a hearty meal.

Dark­ness was de­scend­ing so we de­cided to leave her at that junc­ture and go back. I closely no­ticed that old age had even af­fected her eyes; one of which was com­pletely blinded be­cause of cataract. This was my last en­counter with her. Dur­ing her last few months, she had gone back and re­vis­ited her old haunt­ings and the dom­i­nant rul­ing tigers and ti­gresses of those ter­ri­to­ries seemed to have ac­cepted her as the granny of their lot thereby not get­ting into con­flicts with her dur­ing her last vis­its.

Machhli lived like a su­per­star and grace­fully dimmed her lights in the arena she per­formed in her hay days.

Machhli was found in Ama Ghati area on the park’s western pe­riph­ery, in a fee­ble con­di­tion on 13th Au­gust 2016…. The for­est staff, which cor­doned off the area, was mon­i­tor­ing her con­di­tion and try­ing to feed her, but she only con­sumed wa­ter and her con­di­tion did not im­prove. As Machhli was ly­ing over a grassy patch and was in­ca­pable to stand up or walk, one of her legs de­vel­oped a hole which lured mag­gots to swarm over and at­tack the wound.

She breathed her last on Au­gust 18 2016…. Her mag­nif­i­cent jour­ney has come to an end.

She was cre­mated af­ter post-mortem at Ama Ghati check-post on the pe­riph­ery of the park, which had be­come her ter­ri­tory since 2014.

Alas, The Queen left… Ran­tham­bore will never be a same place for me af­ter her…though I was pre­par­ing my­self for this in­evitable even­tu­al­ity but it’s painful to ac­cept her demise… she will be alive in my heart and mem­ory for­ever…till we meet again in God’s abode.

(For al­ready pub­lished sto­ries and films on wildlife by the writer, which have run on Na­tional Geo­graphic chan­nel, Do­or­dar­shan Na­tional chan­nel and Do­or­dar­shan (In­dia),

please log on to www.ra­he­ja­group.org).

Machhli

Queen en­joy­ing her meal

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