Machali is now almost 18 years old, and probably the oldest and most photographed tiger alive in the wild. I have a collection of over 2,000 images of her and her cubs. She has raised nine cubs including three female cubs in her fourth litter, which was her last, delivered in the late 2006.
My last visit to the park was from 11th to 23rd of April 2013 that covered 12 nights with 24 safaris to the park. My wife Lilani, my nephew Indu and his wife Sanwada accompanied me.
The main purpose of this visit was to see and photograph the T17 and her three 8 month old cubs from her first litter. During my earlier visit in December 2012 sighting of these cubs were not possible as they were hidden in the valley of Kachida in Zone 5.
We arrived at the Tiger Den Resort, in Ranthambhore on the 11th April early morning. My first enquiry from the Resort Manager Patrick, was about news of T17 and the cubs. The answer was not promising since the mother had moved the cubs to outside the park boundaries beyond the Bhadlav Lake, which is not a safe area for tigers since it’s bordering a village. Road access was not possible.
The skin pattern of a tiger to tiger differs and the experienced naturalists in Ranthambhore could identify the tigers easily by the identification numbers given by the forest department to each tiger. I too could do so with my 11 years travel to RNP.
On this visit, we were fortunate to have numerous tiger sightings. Among the highlights was another mating episode involving T19 but with the same male tiger T25 which mated with her sister T17 when I visited in December 2011. Quite a Romeo this T25, mating with the two sisters! The area was Buth Khor again. It was fascinating to watch the way they behaved during and after each mating, especially the way the male holds the female’s neck during mating. I have seen other large cats such as the Lion and Leopard also behave similarly when they mate.
The female tigers first come into mating season at around 2 ½ years old after they are separated from their mother, while the males become sexually active after they are 4 to 5 years old. During the mating period the pair usually stays together for 4 to 5 days while their mating cycles can be up to 5 times per hour. Gestation period is around 16 weeks. When the cubs are born, the mother will not come into mating season until the cubs are over two years old, when they are able to fend for themselves. On most occasions it is the female that attracts and agitates the male to mate.
T19 gave birth to her first litter of three cubs in Lahpur Valley, sired by T28. This male can be easily identified by its five point star mark on his left side of the face. T28 occupies a larger portion of the park when compared to other males, including the beautiful lakes of Zone 3 and 4 such as Padam , Rajbagh and Malik. It was interesting to note that although T28 was her usual partner, T19 was now mating with T25.
Later, we found T19 in her territory of Zone 3, near Rajbagh Lake and surprise! Her previous boyfriend T28, was in her vicinity. It seemed the boyfriend suspected T19 of cheating on him by mating with another tiger and rejected her call to make love. With the exploits of T19 with T25, and later with T28, the NIGHT GIRL OF RANTHAMBHORE helped us to capture unforgettable images of her and her two lovers.
Among the other tigers we saw was a female tiger T30, a mother of three cubs. We spotted one of her cubs, a male about a year old. We had sightings of T24, a male tiger who is known to roam around the road leading to the park entrance. There were a few fatal incidents recorded due to attacks by T24. We were also able to spot the grand old lady Machali. She had now lost all four of her canines and was depending on the bait provided by the forest department to survive. In Lahpur Valley, we came across two of the male cubs from T19’s first litter. They were almost of adult size and living independently without their mother. It was in the same valley, in April last year that we spotted them with their mother and sister together when they were only one year old.
But sadly there was no trace of T17 and her cubs. But towards the latter part of our visit, there was news of the three cubs of T17 appearing at RNP, but still no sign of the mother T17. Forest Department personnel began to search for the much loved tigress, but she had disappeared. It was quite a wonder that her cubs were still alive without the mother to feed them since the cubs were too young to hunt alone. I expect the Forest Department will now have to provide them with bait till they are old enough to hunt and feed themselves.
After returning to Colombo on the 23rd evening, when I enquired from Patrick at Tiger Den, he said that there was an extensive search for the T17 in Kachida as well in Bhadlav region by the forest guards of a team over 100, under the direct guidance and supervision of the Minister of Forest and Tourism of the Rajasthan Government. They had also introduced more camera traps to see any movement of the tiger in the night. But sadly, even at the time of writing this article, there was no news of T17 also fondly known as Sundari, the famous tigress of Ranthambhore!