Bengal tiger

Elegy for Machli

Yesterday I learnt that the oldest, and most famous wild tiger in the world, has died. It was a sad day for tiger lovers everywhere.

Bengal tiger

Machli is said to be the most photographed tiger in the world, and several excellent documentaries have been made about her. She lived in Ranthambore National Park, in Rajasthan, India.

Ten years ago, I was lucky enough to see her, and her then almost adult cubs, in the flesh. Unperturbed by the tourist jeeps, she was the living embodiment of strength and grace. When she walked you could sense her power – power that helped her feed many cubs over the years, and even kill a 14ft long crocodile.

A few years after my visit to Ranthambore, there were a couple of tiger photos by different people in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition. Both were of Machli. And you couldn’t ask for a more beautiful subject.

I saw somewhere that half the tigers in Ranthambore, and another tiger reserve in Rajasthan, as descended from Machli. With the world’s tiger population still precarious, we should be celebrate her success at raising so many cubs, and for living for 19 years – the oldest recorded wild tiger (10-15 years being more usual).

Bengal tiger
One of Machli’s cubs, taken in 2006

Her public profile (she has a facebook page as well as a starring role in documentaries and photographs) has also helped raise awareness of tigers, and has brought in significant amounts of money (through tourism) to Rajasthan. Tiger tourism income is vital for making sure wild tigers are protected.

While lions are meant to be the king of beasts, having seen both in the wild, I think tigers edge it, and Machli was the queen of tigers. Let’s hope she’s endowed her offspring with the same qualities that allowed her to survive and breed so successfully.

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