While the conservation debate with its interplay of emotions and science continues, one thing is for sure. Machli shows us what happens if we give solid protection to tigers.
Consider this: a lifetime achievement award for rendering services to conservation and tourism was bestowed on her. A stamp was dedicated to her. When she breathed her last, policemen hoisted her garlanded body onto their shoulders, and several departments joined hands in giving her a ceremonial funeral. Her children are well established. And – we are talking of a tigress.
Machli, a matriarch of four tiger litters in Ranthambhore tiger reserve, passed away this week. In her death, as in her life, Machli was larger than life even as the world in the wild is inscrutable. ‘Striking’ may be one way of describing the image of seeing a whiskered, striped, giant non-human head on the collective shoulders of policemen – and thus the shoulders of the state. And Machli was striking as much in what she did – she was a strutting, fearless and bold tigress – as for what she seemed to stand for. Known by epithets such as the ‘oldest tiger in the world’ (she lived up to nearly 20 years) and the ‘most photographed tiger in the world’, Machli seemed to fulfil a human need to rely on witnessing a wild, fierce animal, and believe in that animal’s legend.
It is perhaps with Machli that deeply personal associations with individual wild animals started in India. For instance, following the disappearance of the burly tiger Jai from Umred this year, departmental teams have gone out searching for him, Facebook dedications have followed and several columns of newsprint filled. Last year, another Ranthambhore tiger, Ustad, created a furore he was utterly unaware of: a decision to move him to a zoo after he allegedly killed a forest guard was replete with emotional and political controversy. Ustad lovers took out candle light marches in various Indian cities under the banner of ‘Je Suis Ustad‘, demanding his release from “incarceration and imprisonment”. A case was filed in the Rajasthan high court asking that Ustad remain in Ranthambhore, though he was eventually moved to a zoo. It was alleged that Ustad became a scapegoat for some sections of the park establishment who thought he was dangerous.
If this intense, personal ownership of an animal is to augur something for conservation, Machli was certainly a pioneer for the personality-driven, anthropomorphised conservation. She has been the subject of entire calendars, documentaries, photographs, and a Wikipedia page, and has been the centre of lore.
The first fleck of legend comes from the truth: in her boldness, Machli showed generations of photographers and tourists rare insights into tiger sociology and behaviour. She weaved in and out of tourist vehicles in Ranthambhore with her nose in the air, without batting an eyelid and without annoyance. “She was a remarkably confident tigress. She has mated out in the open, she walked with her cubs out in the open, and she never seemed to mind the presence of people,” says Belinda Wright, who runs the Wildlife Protection Society of India. Wright recalls how Machli took on a crocodile, defending her cubs and their meal. In a battle that lasted almost 90 minutes, she lost two canines. But while qualities of maternal love, protectiveness, courage and valour are universally feted and recognised by humans, Machli’s role in Ranthambhore and Sariska’s tiger biology is the most important.
“Machli dominated the Ranthambhore lake area for nearly a decade. And her confidence in front of tourists and cameras made her the subject of many photos. But the most important part is that she has repopulated Ranthambhore with her cubs and stabilised the park’s population,” Wright says.
It wasn’t just Ranthambhore.
By 2005, Sariska had lost all its tigers to poaching. In the times of modern tiger conservation, where the movement has both had negligence as well as the political resolve to restore tiger reserves, it was two of Machli’s progeny that were captured and airlifted to Sariska to repopulate the reserve.
‘Ma Machli’, ‘Queen Mother’ and ‘Lady of the Lake’ were nicknames given to the tigress. But her maternal’ identity also gave a solid peek into tiger behaviour: tigers maintain their own territories, ousting cubs, especially males. They guard this territory for life. “Machli was a long-lived tigress who lived longer than the average age of a tiger. She was a classic example of philopatry. She stayed around her natal area, and she also allowed her female litters to live in an adjoining territory,” says Rajesh Gopal, former member secretary of the National Tiger Conservation Authority. “Her iconic status needs to be used to further strengthen tiger conservation. A lot of credit goes to field personnel for monitoring her.”
This closeness felt to an individual animal, the naming, and the almost-human status, has not been without its critics. For instance, many believe that wild animals should not be anthropomorphised, named, or otherwise artificially attended to. After Machli lost her canine teeth, she was often provided with bait, and some other tigers in Ranthambhore too have been provided medical attention. Some conservationists believe that we should not interfere with the natural world, and only the fittest should survive. It is also alleged that making celebrity animals can interfere with the attention other species or lesser-seen individuals may need.
Others believe that living in the Anthropocene epoch, occasional interventions are now a fair part of ecology. This central debate is epitomised by Machli’s very long life and her survival.
“Ranthambhore is a very small park and it is surrounded by human pressures. It is not a regular practice for us to feed tigers or give them medical attention. We only do it occasionally,” G.V. Reddy, the chief wildlife warden of Rajasthan told The Wire. Machli was born in 1997, when Reddy was a divisional forest officer in Ranthambhore. Like many others, Reddy believes Machli was a special tigress, surviving many battles and long years.
It is true that if not for her own pluck, as well as an anthropogenic helping hand, Machli would not have had a state-sponsored, ceremonial cremation and an obituary written in a human language. But while debates for or against humanising tigers, and questions that examine the interplay of emotions and science continue, one thing is for sure. Machli shows us what happens if we give solid protection to tigers. “She has shown us what robust genes and family lines can emerge if we protect a wild tiger,” Reddy says. “She shows us the possibilities of tiger conservation.”
Neha Sinha is a Delhi-based conservationist.