India’s most popular tigress is no more.
On the morning of Aug. 18, the legendary royal Bengal tigress Machli died of old age. Machli was almost 20 years old—much past the average 10 to 15 years that royal Bengal tigers typically live.
Often called the “Queen of Ranthambore,” Machli was a tourist attraction at the Ranthambore National Park, in the western Indian state of Rajasthan.
Machli was widely considered the world’s most photographed tiger due to her appearance in several documentaries. “She would pose for the camera,” said professional wildlife traveler Anurag Sharma. “She made photographers out of ordinary people.”
Machli was the matriarch of Ranthambore for almost 10 years, and her descendants reportedly make up more than half of the forest’s tiger population.
Machli was first spotted during the monsoon of 1997, according to Ranthambore National Park’s website. She was given the name—which means fish in Hindi—because of marks on her face that resemble a fish.
“Machli became popular due to its muscular strength and was always being noticed for saving her cubs from other animals and male tigers,” the national park’s website says. “The male tigers really got afraid of her.”
Her territory included several lakes around Ranthambore Fort, which meant she often encountered crocodiles. In a 2008 video that has over five million views on YouTube Machli was seen killing a 14-foot long crocodile.
In 2014, Machli suddenly disappeared and authorities initially suspected that she had died. But she was later found in a non-tourist zone of Ranthambore. She had changed her habitation because younger tigers had started taking over her territory, according to an India Today report. In April of this year, she was spotted in the tourist zone again.
The legendary big cat was honored with a postal stamp and featured in several documentaries.
In November 2015, the National Geographic produced a documentary titled “Tiger Queen“ that depicted Machli’s power struggle with three of her cubs who were on the verge of adulthood and could become a threat to her as they eyed her lakeside territory.
Anurag Sharma, who runs as wildlife website called Tigerwalah.com, says Machli changed his life. In 2013, Sharma gave up a corporate job of 10 years to follow his passion for wildlife. He did not spot a single tiger in the next three years, despite many attempts. But earlier this year, Sharma had his first tiger sighting when he saw Machli.
“Machli has a lot to do with whatever I am today,” said Sharma, who says he has now seen her more than 40 times. “I feel that she was far smarter and resilient than other tigresses… She was comfortable around humans and she let us study her and her behavior.”
Over the last few years, Machli was unable to hunt well because she lost her canines in a fight with crocodiles. She was served baits and meat by forest officials, and she continued to hunt for smaller animals such as deer.
The conservation zoologist and tiger expert K Ullas Karanth was critical of humans feeding Machli, saying that the result was she lived longer than she should have. “Given that tigers have high birth rates and death rates in protected high-density populations, such interventions targeting individual tigers do not make sense,” Karanth said. “Tigers are wild animals and they should be born, live, and die like wild nature intends, rather than artificially cared for like domestic animals.”
Indian wildlife enthusiasts believe that Machli’s death is the end of an era.
“From today onwards there are two categories of wildlife lovers,” Sharma said. “Those who were privileged to see Machli, and those who couldn’t.”