Machali was, until recently, the resident tigress of the area around the famous Ranthambhore Fort and lakes. Once home to powerful Maharajas and Maghuls, it was abandoned in the 16th century and the wilderness returned to this most picturesque park.
Here, glorious pleasure-domed palaces, lakes, and Formand fortress walls enclose ruined palaces and pillared temples. Onion-topped chattris provide shade; perfect resting places and great ambush sites for Machali, as she hunts her main prey, sambar deer, that bathe in the lakes, and spotted deer who graze the verges.
Machali is probably the most photographed tiger in the world. She has starred in a number of documentaries, had a library of books written on her and her park, and even received a TOFT Lifetime Achievement Award for her contribution to conservation and the wider Rajasthan economy.
While her name means ‘fish’ in Hindi, this was actually her mother’s name, after a fish-like marking. While the name passed down, the marking didn’t (all tigers have unique stripe patterns) and Machali’s most distinguishing feature is a fork-like mark on her left cheek.
Machali was born during the monsoon months of 1997, probably in July. She has two other sisters but was always the dominant cub. She was first seen during the winter of 1997 and by the beginning of 1999 she had started hunting on her own: the first sign she was about to separate from her mother. Soon afterwards, her mother ceded a part of her territory to Machali and that’s where she’s spent the majority of her reign.
This was at the centre of the 350 square miles of the park, in a prime location, and among some of the most varied and picturesque landscapes. More recently, her daughter Sundari has usurped her range and pushed Machali to the park’s fringes. Still, her range has a mix of different habitats, ranging from deep tree-lined valleys to sun scorched plateaus, and a high concentration of prey species.
Her former territory around the fort is still is visited by thousands of tourists each year, who come to catch a glimpse of her or her offspring. A huge number of pilgrims also walk to the temple of Lord Ganesh within the fort. Once a year, over three days, half-a-million pilgrims visit this temple. Machali has never tried to stalk, hide, or run from them, and it’s a wonder that she’s never attacked anyone.
During the summer months of 2000 she mated with a large male tiger called Bamboo Ram and three months later she gave birth to two male cubs. We named them Broken Tail (because his tail was broken) and Slant Ear (for reasons no-one remembers). By the end of December 2001 both these cubs, now teenagers, separated from Machali and sadly we never saw Slant Ear again.
For around 18 months, Broken Tail lived in a small territory at the edge of park, overrun with cattle grazers and a dearth of prey. Somewhere in the summer of 2003, probably forced by lack of water, Broken Tail decided to leave Ranthambhore. In August 2003, we were sad to hear that a passenger train had run him down about a 100 miles away, in a heavily-populated farming region of Rajasthan.
Soon after Broken Tail and Slant Ear separated from their mother, she mated again with another male tiger called Nick Ear. By now, Bamboo Ram had died of old age and Nick Ear had taken over his territory and was the dominant male within Machali’s territory.
By May 2002 Machali had given birth to her second litter. We first saw them on the 30th of June (the day before Ranthambhore closed for the monsoon season) in the Nalghati valley, and there were three cubs. Machali was carrying one softly in her mouth and the other two were following her. However, one of these cubs did not survive and when Ranthambhore reopened for visitors in October that year there were now only two cubs left. We named the male Jhumaroo and the female Jhumari.
Around this time Ranthambore was again under siege from highly-organised tiger poachers (many from the well-known poaching community on the edge of the park) and the dominant tiger, Nick Ear fell to their bullets. Soon after her mating with ‘X’, she drove Jhumaroo and Jhumari from her area. Jhumaroo rapidly set up his own territory in Lahpur, taken over ground from the poached male tigers that once lived there. Jhumari disappeared soon after, and our guess is that she simply didn’t survive the separation from her mother – something that happens relatively often.
Jhumaroo inherited Machali’s skill as a crocodile hunter. Living beside lakes full of India most deadly reptiles, this was behaviour that had never been seen before in the wild. All of these long scraps with crocodiles (one lasting a remarkable 13 hours) took their toll on Machali, however, and she lost a couple of canine teeth in the process.
In March 2005, at the relatively advanced age of eight, Machali gave birth to her third litter of two cubs – a male we called Bunty and a female called Bubbly. These two cubs stayed with her until October 2006. When these cubs were young, we were pretty sure that they’d be Machali’s last.
However, much to our surprise, Machali gave birth to a fourth litter during the monsoon months of 2006. This time she had three cubs. These cubs are now full grown and independently established: Satra, Athara, and Unnis.
Today Machali is old, has lost almost all her teeth and most of her territory, and lives not on a diet of deer, but slow-moving cattle on the fringes of the park. Her daughter Satra had at one point driven her out. But, as Satra is distracted with raising her cubs, it might be time for Machali to make her return and reclaim her land.
Machali’s inevitable legacy will survive however. In 2009, Bubbly was darted and moved to Sariska Tiger Reserve, followed a few months later by another of her daughters, Athara. Today. they are the nucleus of a new line of tigers in this tiger park, only 100 miles from Ranthambhore.
These life stories were brought to you after years of careful observation, notes and photography. Aditya Singh is a principal contributor together with many of Ranthambhore’s nature guiding community, and the success of Tigerwatch’s ongoing intelligence. Read all their blogs here
Credits: Tiger Nation