Animals have a way of surprising us. Just when we think we have them figured out they will reach out to shock us with some new behavior or anomaly, showing us that life often indeed does find a way. One very enigmatic and charismatic creature that has managed to make headlines around the world is the late tigress Machli, who inhabited a wildlife park in India and was without a doubt one very special tiger that went beyond what we may think we know about these regal and fierce animals.
Sprawled out over a stretch of dry deciduous forests, hilly cliffs, and open grassy meadows in the northern portion of the country of India is Ranthambhore National Park, originally established in 1955 as Sawai Madhopur Game Sanctuary. As far as national parks in India go, Ranthambhore is not particularly impressive or large, encompassing just 109 sq miles, making it merely the 40th largest national park in the country, yet it had one remarkable attribute about it, and that is all of the tigers that roam here.
The area is so well known for its wealth of tigers that before it became a national park in 1980 a portion of it had been dedicated as a tiger sanctuary in 1973 under the tiger conservation program called Project Tiger, and the area sustains a strikingly large concentration of the majestic predators in comparison to other regions. Indeed, there is said to be no other better place to see these beautiful animals in their natural habitat in all of India, with wild tigers frequently spotted stalking though the trees, lounging about in meadows, and even hunting here, often out in full view in broad daylight and much to the delight of the droves of tourists who come here to see them. Yet for all of these tigers prowling Ranthambhore National Park one truly stand tall as the queen of them all, and would go on to become almost as much of an anomaly as she was an icon; the ferocious, venerable, and mysterious tigress known as Machali, or Machli.
Born in 1996, Machali, also widely and more commonly known as simply Machli, was so named because it is the Hindi word for “fish,” which may seem strange until one sees the large fish-shaped marking that adorned her ear and face, a trait she inherited from her mother, also named Machali. From the moment she was born, Machli stood out from her peers and seemed destined for greatness. By far the most dominant cub of a litter of three, by the time she was 2 years old she was already out hunting big game on her own, and not long after this she challenged her own mother and won, taking over a large chunk of her territory. She was known for her control of the Ranthambhore Lakes, earning her the nickname “Lady of the Lakes.”
One of the things that Machli was known for was her incredibly gentle, almost tame nature towards humans. She was known to lie right out in full view of tourists in broad daylight, seeming to even pose for the cameras, making her perhaps the most photographed tiger who has ever lived and making her known the world over. She showed no fear of these curiosity seekers and also no aggression whatsoever, allowing people to approach much closer than a normal tiger would be comfortable with without escaping or attacking. This crowd pleasing nature made her a beloved star, pulled in $10 million dollars a year in tourist revenue for the park, and Machli featured in countless documentaries and photo spreads, to the point that she is considered to have been the most photographed tiger who has ever lived.
In direct contrast to this attention seeking behavior, mugging for the camera, and almost friendly demeanor with humans, Machli was also conversely known for her sheer ferocity and almost unnatural strength in the face of other wildlife. Eventually birthing 4 litters of cubs, more than usual and increasing the park’s tiger population considerably, she was able to consistently protect them from marauding male tigers much larger than herself, almost effortlessly brushing them off. Machli was an absolute beast in these confrontations, decisively winning again and again, even as she passed the age when most tigresses would be too weak to defend themselves at all, and she not once ever lost a cub on her watch, a rarity in the fierce, no-holds-barred world of tigers.
It isn’t just other tigers that Machli has so confidently tangled with, with leopards or anything else unfortunate enough to come across her being bested in short order. The lake area that she liked to inhabit was also infested with crocodiles, which she did not seem to have a problem with at all, chasing them off and keeping them at bay on countless occasions, even slaughtering them, which tigers usually don't do. Her most famous run-in occurred when she engaged with an immense 14-foot long crocodile twice her size and won, killing it in front of a crowd of tourists who filmed the whole violent spectacle, with the video becoming a sensation. She is the only tiger known to have ever pulled off such an incredible feat, and it became legendary, earning her yet another nickname, “Crocodile Killer.”
Over the years Machli would accrue even more nicknames, such as “Queen Mother of Tigers” and “Tigress Queen of Ranthambore,” she won the prestigious "Lifetime Achievement Award" due to her contribution to conservation and as an important tourist attraction, and she even had her own Facebook page. In 2013 she received her own commemorative postal cover and stamp in her honor. Machli was essentially the face of tiger conservation at the time, and in many ways still is. Machli proved that she was quite remarkable even into her later years as well. Even when Machli lost her front two canines, normally a death sentence for a tiger, she tenaciously continued to protect her numerous offspring and fight off all comers against incredible odds. However, it greatly reduced her hunting prowess and she eventually lost the use of one of her eyes on top of this, which all combined caused her to lose much of her territory to her own daughter, Sundari.
With her advanced age and the public’s love for her, she was for a time fed by park rangers, who would lead out live animals such as goats attached to tethers for her to kill, as it was thought she was no longer able to hunt for herself. Nevertheless she was able to still kill these animals solely with the sheer power of her jaws, and she would continue to prove to be something of a confounding mystery. In 2014, Machli vanished from her usual haunts, which sparked a massive search for her and she was eventually found some distance away living off the land and still somehow managing to hunt and kill her own food, a feat deemed incredible, even impossible, by wildlife biologists. No other tiger in her condition had ever named to do such a thing at such an advanced age, and one almost gets the feeling that she escaped purely because she did not appreciated being handed her food. At the time there were countless people who petitioned for Machli to be moved to a zoo so that she could be properly cared for in her twilight years, but the government decided against it as they felt it would be undignified and cruel to separate her from the land she had long ruled.
Yet even with her indomitable will and inexplicable prowess and ferocity, by 2016 Machli was obviously and visibly winding down. She would be found in the forest laying on her side, critically ill and plagued by old age. Officials tried to revive her but she died right there, in the spot of her own choosing and on her own terms, still the proud warrior queen. At the time she was 20 years old, far older than the typical 10 to 15 year lifespan for a tiger in the wild, certainly past the age where she should be fighting off comers and hunting her own food, and Machli remains the oldest wild tigress known to have ever lived.
Other anomalous behavior attributed to Machli span a variety of oddities. She was extremely clever, allegedly using tourist vehicles to help her in her stalk and hunt prey from time to time, hiding behind the trucks as curious deer hovered just beyond, suddenly bursting forth from behind to make the kill, right in front of onlookers. She also seemed to have a way with the male tigers that she didn't outright try to kill, and for some reason was able to get her mates to bring her food, an unusual behavior for tigers that hasn't really been satisfactorily explained. Machli was also comforted by a former mate in the wake of being pushed from her domain by her own offspring as she skulked in the sidelines. The male tiger approached her and just seemed to hang around and be close to her, almost as if he sympathized with her and was trying to cheer her up. In the wild when two adult tigers come together it is for one of two reasons, to fight or mate, and these two weren't doing either of those things, just simply lounging about as if they were old friends. It was a very strange show of companionship shown by tigers that further cements Machli as an enigma.
Machli’s tragic death made headlines at the time, and there was an outpouring of people paying their respects to this very unusual and mysterious tiger. Such was the sentiment of grieving experienced in India that the tigress was given a full Hindu burial, wrapped in white linen and cremated in the presence of a cadre of ceremonial guards standing at attention, a ritual unheard of for an animal. It was a fitting end to a tiger that seemed like no other, and captured the hearts and the imaginations of a nation and the world. Despite this tragic passing, Machli’s legacy lives on, as she birthed a total of 11 cubs in her lifetime, and currently around 60% of the tigers in the national park have bloodlines that link to her.
While there of course does not seem to be anything particularly supernatural going on here, Machli's story still definitely seems to push the boundaries of what we think we know about tigers, and holds a place as an oddity of the natural world. She was an irreplaceable original, playing the crowds, enforcing the law of her land, more often than not engaging in non-tiger like behavior, and fully earning her many colorful titles. Machli was truly one of a kind, and it is unlikely we will ever see such a long-lived, eccentric, startlingly strong, tenacious and proud tigress who has managed to capture the hearts of people ever again. Rest in peace, Machli. You deserve it.