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Wild tigers of Ranthambore, by Tristan Rutherford

Faune, June 2019​

Machali the tigress pads through the morning mist. Lakes push ground cloud across Ranthambore National Park. Each one forms a foggy watering hole for 40 mammal species. Machali gazes at an abundant scene. As an apex hunter she has eyes front and centre; alpha predators don’t need to check behind. She resides at the top of the food chain and can take her pick from a vital larder of flying foxes, chinkara gazelles and blackbuck antelope. 

 

The name Machali means ‘fish’ in Hindi. A fish-shaped mark can be found just below this Bengal tiger’s ears. To aid hunting (unlike packs of lions and dogs, tigers stalk alone), each auricle can rotate like a radar to locate prey hidden in dense vegetation. Machali is also known as the ‘Crocodile Killer’. In this primeval arena she once fought a marsh crocodile the length of a motorcar. In the jungle mismatch the tigress straddled and bit like a striped assassin with only surprise in her favour. In the end her canine teeth, each one the size of a middle finger, pierced crocodile collar with the pressure of 1,000 pounds per square inch. Mike Tyson could only manage half that power. 

 

Today’s breakfast is easy in comparison. A sambar deer sips at the lake edge. As a twilight feeder the sambar is usually savier, with the ability to swim if in grave danger, but this male juvenile seems lost in misty thought. Machali can see, hear and smell him. Lips are licked in anticipation - by a tongue rough enough to strip flesh from bone. With loose limbs Machali paws through the forest ether. Stripes camouflage her under a canopy of imli and kakera (tamarind and governor's plum). When the sambar turns, the tigress lays prone. Haunches splay to sink into perfumed khus grass (vetiver). The only movement is a heaving chest that pumps oxygen into her 150kg frame. 

 

Now the urgent creep can begin. Shoulder blades revolve under skin like pistons primed for action. She glides with abandon now. Long back legs launch leaps longer than a London bus. Her speed is relentless, irresistible. Machali hits 30, 40, 50 kilometres an hour until retractable claws fell her doe-eyed prey, the warning shrieks of his tribe unheeded amid the told-you-so chatter of greylag geese and blackheaded ibis. 

 

Machali’s story is woven into time. The Bhimbetka cave paintings near Bhopal detail tigers prancing 10,000 years ago. At that dawn of history the largest of the Panthera species would have tackled Eurasian megafauna. These included the steppe bison, a 1,000-kg leviathan with horns a metre apart, and the auroch, an even heavier super-cow famed for its aggression. Tigers proved more adaptable to environmental change. Their roars were heard from the Turkish plains to Siberia’s Sakhalin Island, from Bali to the Himalayas. Due to an anatomical quirk, the only other felines able to produce this chilling growl are lions, leopards and jaguars. Tigers can register 114 decibels; louder than a rock band or a jet takeoff. 

 

Diets varied according to habitat. The largest of the nine subspecies, the Siberian, still dines almost exclusively on elk and boar. The Sumatran tiger prefers orangutan and ground-trotting tapirs. Indochinese and Malayan tigers have been known to hunt vastly larger - and similarly endangered - species. They sink teeth into throats of Asian rhinos, hang on for dear life, then secrete the strangled carcass. Other subspecies that challenged humankind for hegemony are now known only to science. The Caspian tigers that fought Roman gladiators roamed Eastern Turkey and Northern Afghanistan until the 1990s. The Balinese and Javan species were lost during the 1950s and 1970s. The South China tiger is probably extinct in the wild. The species is the national symbol of six countries, but has disappeared from two of them. It’s blink-of-the-eye stuff.  

 

Historically the biggest of the big cats were revered as much as feared. Tigers symbolised stealth, courage, fertility and protection from evil. When humans were lost in legendary forests, the mythical tiger would bring food and lead them to safety. It’s easy to understand the awe. With a hunting range of 10,000 square kilometres, species like the Siberian were renowned navigators. Hindu warrior goddess Durga rode a giant tiger to symbolise her control over unrivalled power and unbridled aggression. Southern Chinese tigers were literally marked as royalty: their four forehead stripes formed the character wáng, meaning king. In Taoist folklore the God of Wealth, Caishen, sits atop a black tiger. Still in China, tiger charms ward off evil for babies and children. A good general is a “tiger general”. An ineffectual opponent a “paper tiger”.

 

The legend of shape-shifting weretigers was common across the species’ range. Like werewolves of Europe, the condition was thought to be hereditary. On certain moonlit nights, men would sprout clawed feet and striped tails before Hulk-ing out into full tiger mode. In Indonesia, kindly weretigers guarded crops. In Thailand, man-eating tigers were thought to possess the souls of their victims, so few dared to kill them. The Nagas of northeast India still maintain a ghostly tiger-man spirit that haunts, taunts and transforms. 

 

The map of modern India was laid out by a ‘tiger’. Babur (as tiger translates in Persian) founded the subcontinental Mughal Empire. By 1526 the Muslim ruler had fought the Hindu Rajputs through Afghanistan all the way to Agra. Babur’s grandson, Akbar, was similarly feisty. He laid siege to Ranthambore’s fort with cannons. Powder smoke clouded the noon sun, until the fort’s brickwork became today’s tumbledown training ground for adolescent monkeys - and pursuant tigers. By generations the Mughal dynasty became Indian. Akbar’s grandson, Shah Jahan, was a half-Rajput who maintained a multilingual court and built India’s magisterial symbol, the Taj Mahal. In tiger terms, the Caspian had become the Bengal. 

 

Shah Jahan commissioned an illustrated history his grandfather’s glories. The Akbarnama (or ‘Book of Akbar’) describes a hunting scene when an attacking tigress of Machali’s stature was slain by a single slash from his sword. Akbar’s mastery over this force of nature proved him a worthy successor to Babur, the original tiger-leader. Shah Jahan also a hunter - albeit in 17th-century style. The Mughal lord would blast away with a matchlock rifle from the comfort of an elephant howdah. 

 

India’s new rulers boasted more advanced weaponry. As the Mughals grew indolent, the British grew hungry, and brought Lee–Enfield bolt action repeaters to do their bidding. Diplomatic recreation with vassal princes called for hunting parties of up to 40 elephants. Tigers were baited, drugged or otherwise lured to the party. According to National Geographic, Britain's King George and his retinue bagged 39 Bengals after his coronation in 1911. Shooting became a princely pursuit. The Maharaja of Kotah "modified a flaming red Rolls Royce Phantom for tiger safaris in the Rajasthani hills, outfitting it with spotlights for night hunting, a mounted machine gun and a Lantaka cannon". The rural passtime became mechanised. 

 

Like ruling the Raj, the British framed tiger hunting as an onerous burden. How else to save poor villagers from the ravages of India? Son-of-Empire Rudyard Kipling heaps irony upon irony. In The Jungle Book he vilifies Shere Khan, the arrogant, manipulative tiger who kills humans for ‘sport’. William Blake demands of the Tyger, Tyger, burning bright: "What immortal hand or eye, Could frame thy fearful symmetry?" His poem scalded generations, yet Blake never foot in India himself. As many as 100,000 tigers were shot as trophies between 1875 and 1925. There are now more captive tigers in Texas than wild Bengals in India, around 3,000 according to estimates. Mike Tyson owns three. 

 

Native mythology stayed alive, even if Bengal tigers didn’t. Babur’s mantle was borrowed by Tipu Sultan, the ‘Tiger of Mysore’. The southern Indian ruler’s policies of real wages and technological progress alarmed the East India Company. Worse still, ‘Citizen Tipu’ beat the British at their own game. He played divide and rule by sending embassies to London’s enemies in France, Afghanistan and the Ottoman Empire. He outgunned them with iron-tubed cannons embossed with tiger mouths on the muzzle. His tiger-striped infantry used tiger-handled swords, steeled with mythologised bravery, to press the attack.

 

When the British Empire marched en masse, Tipu ignored the chance to escape: "Better to live one day as a tiger than a thousand years as a sheep". A surviving remnant from the Tiger of Mysore’s reign is a life-sized mechanical tiger that mauls a British redcoat while playing classical Indian melodies. This wooden machine, named 'Tipu's Tiger', now resides in London's V&A. 

 

When the British left in India in 1947 the tiger gained a domestic enemy. Local maharajas, as fainéant as they were feckless, drove destruction up a gear. The Maharaja of Surguja holds the dark record of shooting an alleged 1,360 tigers. Photos show Bengal males draped over his sunroof-shooter Rolls. Prince Philip shot one in the company of the Maharaja of Jaipur, whose royal hunting grounds included Ranthambore. The sun nearly set on the species for a second reason. As poachers hunted the largest specimens from Sumatra to Siberia, tiger DNA became as inbred and prone to idiocy as any Indo-European royal. The twilight days of the tiger were nigh.

 

Project Tiger was the 1973 plan by Indira Gandhi to save the Bengal tiger from the fate of the Balinese. Royal hunting grounds became animal reserves, hence Ranthambore National Park. Guards would patrol perimeters. Buffer zones were set up to protect villagers from tigers, and vice versa. (India’s population swelled from 330 million at Independence to over a billion more today, both humans and tigers competing for land, timber and other resources.) Animal numbers stabilised and grew even though the project was flawed. Corruption meant many of the 48 reserves contained not a single big cat. Guards still polished their wooden stock Lee–Enfields while poachers toted AK47s. With tigers, money talks. 

 

Ironically hard cash might save Machali’s growing brood. Before her passing in 2016, her exploits brought fame to the price of $10m in tourism receipts. Ranthambore is now the highest grossing wildlife park in India, out-earning the second-highest earner fourfold. Over the course of a decade, her 11 cubs helped boost Ranthambore’s tiger population from 15 to 50. Machali even featured on an Indian postage stamp, an accolade shared with Indira Gandhi, Tipu Sultan and the Taj Mahal. Such icons prove that preservation marks the path to prosperity. A new dawn rises over Ranthambore.

Tristan and Kathryn write travel stories from across the globe