Ranthambore (Rajasthan), Aug 18: Watched over by her human admirers, Ranthambore Tiger Reserve's pride, 19-year-old tigress Machli, the oldest big cat ever known to have walked the wilderness, died on Wednesday morning, officials said.
Machli, the most photographed big cat at the reserve, died at 9.40 a.m.
She had been refusing food and water for some time. She was under observation at Ama Ghati, in the fringe area of the reserve, and surrounded by a bevy of her admirers and forest officials when she died.
Her body has been taken to the Ama Ghati check-post for the post-mortem, after which it will be cremated. The cremation is to avoid the body parts from being harvested, Ranthambore Field Director Y.K Sahu told IANS.
Earlier this week after Machli, or T-16, was found in feeble condition near a resort in Ama Ghati fringes, officials cordoned off the area and kept her under observation.
The area had a waterhole, and Machli lived there after she started losing her canines and prime area in 2008.
For the last seven years, Machli was being fed bait to avoid death from starvation, perhaps a reason for her longevity.
"She lived an abnormally big life. Generally tigers in wilderness only reach 13 or 14 years, she almost touched 20," Sunayan Sharma, a former forester and founder of Sariska Tiger Foundation, told IANS.
"She also gave birth to about five litters which is extraordinary; and the way she'd been hunting was distinct, showing her extraordinary agility and adaptability," Sharma added.
Born in early 1997, and mother of over 12 cubs of which nine survived since 2000, the end of this extraordinary tigress was also distinct.
"It's very rare that one can witness a tiger die. They mostly go into seclusion. Due to her stature, she deserved our tending," Sahu said.
For many forest officials, Machli's dying was an emotional moment.
Often seen hunting and playing around water bodies, which earned her the name Machli (fish) and titles like "Lady of lakes" or "Queen Mother", experts said her life was a distinct case of "evolution" in the behaviour of tigers, especially those in Ranthambore.
"Tiger behaviour is evolving and it was best reflected in the case of Machli. She understood the importance of humans and never showed aggression. She was the most photographed tigress ever," R.N. Mehrotra, former Field Director of Ranthambore who observed Machli for seven years from 2005 to 2012, told IANS.
He said that though the tiger has been described as solitary and elusive nocturnal carnivore, Machli's case showed a change in mindset of tigers and the way they perceived humans.
"The behaviour change in conditional to the situation," he said, contrasting Machli's case with 'Ustad" or T-24, another famous tiger from Ranthambore, whose behaviour change made him more aggressive, supposedly due to extreme interventions by humans in his area. Ustad was lablled a maneater and sent to captivity last year.
The Ranthambore Reserve reportedly earned millions of rupees a year from tourists flocking to see and photograph Machli.
The most famous tiger ever, Machli besides being remembered for her legendary battle with a huge crocodile, a dedicated postal stamp and as lead character of many documentaries, leaves behind a legacy of evolution.