Queen of the Lakes

Big cats have been a fascination since childhood, that drew me to Yala, Wilpattu as often as one could travel. And in our efforts to present what’s ours to the world, we’ve done countless safaris and a dozen film productions highlighting our natural world and the usual density of leopards in Sri Lanka.

Thirty years hence, I’ve carried with me the passion to explore more big cats elsewhere. A brief visit to Kenya several years back had exciting moments with the Lions and Cheetah while leopards being more elusive in the savannah eluded me but I’ve had my fair share of moments with the spotted one back home.

It was now time to see the largest cat of them all, outweighing the Mara lion easily by over 70 pounds, we set out to explore the majestic jungles of Ranthambhore, India in search of Kipling’s Sheer Khan, it was an expedition to see, photograph and observe the Bengal Tiger.

It was mid April 2014, and my first visit to this amazing forest, and the langur’s were at their frantic best calling in a frenzy, all eyes peeled the forest when I picked up some movement of stripes among the vegetation, Tiger I called and there she was, in all her feline glory emerging from the bushes and briefly looking at me for a fraction, the camera fired one burst and she disappeared silently with photographers previewing their images anxiously.

For me, my dream of photographing a tiger in the wild, achieved and we headed back to our abode just outside of the periphery of Ranhambhore ecstatic seeing the tiger.

My resort guides were animated, ‘Sir seeing a tiger on your first game drive is very lucky’ they said, as I went through my little Tiger Guide book trying to ID the Tigress I saw in the wild. She was T 19, named Krishna, the daughter of the famed tigress Machli, who’s starred in as many as 20 documentaries around the world, almost an ambassador for Indian wildlife.

Krishna, daughter of Machli’s off her last litter, had a sister, Sundari ( T18) who was later moved to Sariska national park in an effort to boost tiger numbers there.

I knew that Machli was now the senior citizen of Ranthambhore, perhaps the oldest wild tigress on record at 17 years, and seeing this queen of the lakes in the wild would be the ultimate dream. It was our 5th game drive on zone 5, when the driver whispered to us, “Machli’s been seen by the water” and that was just amazing news. As the Jipsy approached a cluster of vehicles, we saw the ailing female, resting in the water and I could see the aging cat gently moving her limbs, almost in pain. She’s raised 9 cubs, who’s already produced more young, and her daughter Krishna is now occupying Ranthanbhore’s prime zones 2 and 3, with her own set of three very young cubs, Machli’s done her duties above expectation, and now an Indian Icon in the wild, given a lifetime achievement award by the forest department of India.

I returned with an ambition to launch guided Tiger safaris in Ranthambhore, based on our success in 2014, and we had three back to back tours planned in March, April of 2015. A short three hour flight to Delhi and we traversed to Sawaimadhopur by overnight train, and it was great to be back in Tiger country.
My guides hurriedly got the supplies and water in the jeep, and off we went searching for stripes in the wilds off Ranthambhore. I’ve seen Krishna’s three month old cubs 12 months back and couldn’t help dreaming of seeing the cubs now, fifteen months plus, they would make any photographer happy.

And as we drove thirty minutes into the park, the Jipsy came to a screeching halt, Tiger the driver said, and there they were, grown cubs playing in the water with a soft shell terrapin.
Three days later, we were rewarded by the entire family of three cubs and Krishna at a kill, then walked pass the jeep almost too close for most of the short lenses, and laid by the water in a show of amazing tiger family behavior.

This 570 pound predator with powerful paws which can open a buffalos ribs with one swipe began playing and caressing the cubs with such tenderness, it was such a show of the softer moments a tigress enjoys in her terrain raising three grown cubs, in the wilds of Ranthambhore.

23 more game drives in the next 4 weeks yielded an amazing collection of moments with tigers,
T 6, ‘Romeo’ mating with T 41, ‘Leyla’ just twenty meters from the jeep was a spectacular moment, and the one that blew away the photographer’s were when Krishna’s cubs began playing in the open on zone 3, forty minutes of sheer magic, with powerfully built cubs leaping in the air and rolling over, it was almost a National Geographic moment unfolding before us and the cameras fired endlessly capturing some of the best cub behavior this season.
We flew back home richer with amazing array of experiences in Tiger country, The temperature has now risen from a fair 37 degrees in late March to 43 degrees in early May. Three tours and 23 guests seeing Tigers in the wild, I returned to Colombo looking forward to 2016, when we head back to the wilds of Ranthambhore to pick up the tiger trail.

The Queen of Lakes in Ranthambhore – Machli is now been cared for by the Indian forest department in a Non Tourism area, its now too late to see this amazing tigress in the wild, but I’ve had that moment with her back in 2014, To me she has passed on her mantle of being the Queen of Lakes at Ranthambhore to her daughter Krishna.
Being the first tiger I saw in the wild and the tigress who’s raising three fifteen month old cubs, Krishna’s deserving of this priceless title.

May the tigers in India be safe, free and wild and the legend of Sheer Khan echo in the wilds of India for generations to come.

Writer / Photographer
Chitral Jayatilake
Head of Eco Tourism – Cinnamon Hotels & Resorts