Featured in Fierce Encounters: When Tigers and Crocs Go Head to Head

Riveting tales from one of the country's leading conservationists.

For most of us, tigers are fearsome, majestic creatures to be admired from afar. But for conservationist Valmik Thapar, they have been teachers and companions who have given greater meaning to his life. Living with Tigers chronicles Thapar’s 40-year-long relationship with the tigers of Ranthambhore National Park in Rajasthan, including the famous tigress Machli. This is of the many riveting tales from his time in the jungle:

Indeed, 2005-08 were some of the worst years or wild tigers in India. However, Ranthambhore recovered gradually and its amazing tigers continued to contribute to the world’s knowledge of wild tigers.

One such contribution was a first in the world of natural history and was recorded on film for the world to see. It was Machli’s first litter. When these cubs were nearly ten months old a remarkable event took place near the shores of Padam Talao and close to Jogi Mahal. It was related to me by my nephew Jaisal Singh. Machli and her three cubs were feeding on the remnants of a sambar at the edge of the lake. It was a hot day and the carcass stank. The waters of the lake had receded because of a drought the previous year. As a hot breeze blew an enormous crocodile got wind of the carcass and left the safety of the water to start his slow walk towards the smell. My nephew was watching Machli from the forest. Jaisal was unaware of the crocodile’s approach. Suddenly Machli became alert as the prehistoric reptile lumbered towards her. She watched intently and when it was about 25 feet from her she attacked it. The 12-foot crocodile was taken completely by surprise. He could not get back to the safety of the water and now had to confront a ferocious tigress out to defend her cubs and her kill. The crocodile put up a valiant struggle with flailing tail and snapping snout but it could not match the agility of the tigress. She was half his size but they battled for nearly an hour. Jaisal filmed the encounter from behind a bush. Machli grievously injured the crocodile. The next morning the tigers were gone and a chunk from the crocodile’s flank had been eaten. This was the first ever encounter between a tiger and crocodile in the wild to have been recorded. Ranthambhore’s tigers were once more rewriting the chronicles of natural history. That dry season Machli killed three more crocodiles. The shortage of water meant that crocodiles were moving from one pool to another more frequently and this made them much more vulnerable to the tigers’ attack.

Machli was quite comfortable in the presence of jeeps. She slipped in and around them and used them for cover especially while ambushing deer. Visitors loved her, especially as she was seldom aggressive. Through the first decade of the twenty-first century she became Ranthambhore’s star attraction and had a huge following. Her area of focus was the lakes. Visibility here was excellent and she performed at will for the hundreds who came to see her. One of her spectacular encounters, which was also photographed, was with a big male tiger on a day when he had killed a sambar. While he was away quenching his thirst Machli decided to sneak in and feed on the carcass. The big guy did not like this and when he returned he confronted Machli. They both rose ferociously on their hind legs snarling at each other but after a few minutes Machli gave in and submitted with a little bow of her head, falling to the ground just as humans have done with kings and people in positions of power over the centuries. Peace descended without injury to either. Her ability to resolve conflict was remarkable. I will go one stage further and infer that Machli had preferences for particular male tigers. She kept miles away from T24 when he entered her area but enjoyed greeting T25 and even T28. Tigers seem to assess their preferences for each other based on the very different characters that evolve in their society.

Appeared in the December 2016 issue as “Living with Tigers”.

Living With Tigers, Valmik Thapar (Aleph Book Company, 2016, ₹599)

Rose Corcoran