World’s most famous tigress gives insight into human-animal conservation relationships


Photo Credit: Courtesy of Asianet Newstable

A famous tigress named Machli captured the hearts of animal-lovers all over the world — but ensuring her health into old age raises questions about elevating animals to “celebrity” status.

Geography doctoral candidate , Kalli Doubleday, fell in love with Machli after watching National Geographic documentaries and learning about her during field research. She published a paper in February analyzing Machli’s relationship with humans, and what this relationship means for animal conservation practices. The paper, titled "Nonlinear liminality: Human-animal relations on preserving the world’s most famous tigress" was published in Geoforum in February. 

Machli, who died in August last year at 19 years old, was the world’s oldest surviving tigress, according to National Geographic. To keep the tigress healthy in old age, caretakers fed Machli even after she lost her teeth, which some conservators thought interfered with the course of nature and wasted limited resources.

“A major goal of this paper is to draw attention to the fact that (Machli’s feeding) is not about conservation,” Doubleday said. “There is necessary room for (conservation practices) but when it is influenced by emotional connection rather than conservation connection, it intervenes with nature. We are meddling with animal lives.”

According to the World Wildlife Fund, only 3,890 tigers exist in the wild due to destruction of habitat. Doubleday said that caring for Machli in her old age meant less space for other tigers.

“There’s also the ethical issue,” Doubleday said. “If we say this is our favorite tiger, and keep them on life support essentially, then we are directly influencing what a tiger reserve is.”

According to Doubleday’s new paper, Machli’s special treatment offers unparalleled insights about human interactions with nature.

“The media as a whole impacts the way that we see nature,” Doubleday said. “Machli is representative of her country and her country’s animal population. Each reserve is starting to have a celebrity — that is the norm and we’ve created this norm.”

According to Doubleday, park rangers from the Ranthambore National Park noticed Machli as a baby for her beauty and approachability. She said Machli’s fame grew as a cub, when she fought off her own mother and siblings to acquire territory, something few tigers do. Unlike most tigresses, Machli also successfully raised all her cubs. Doubleday said Machli fiercely protected her cubs, losing an eye while doing so.

“Machli is such a star because she truly had a novel life,” Doubleday said. “From the get-go she was very spunky and in her adult life she was very easy to approach by humans. She even took on a 14 foot crocodile! Her activities in front of people were just so movie-like and flashy.”

Texas has crowd favorites too. A white tiger named Raja is the most popular exhibit at The Capital of Texas Zoo, according to Director Michael Hicks. However, unlike Machli's situation, white tigers are not endangered and the Capital of Texas Zoo is a private business. Hicks said as Raja's main caregiver, he feels emotionally attached to the tiger.

“I handle him personally as opposed to other animals. If I didn’t see him every day, he’d be less happy and I know I’d be too,” Hicks said.

Doubleday interviewed many subjects in her study and found that the majority said old tigers should not be fed, but a majority also exempted Machli from this rule. Doubleday, who admits her emotional connection to Machli, said she thinks feeding Machli was for human purpose only.

“The hard part of this is that I was one of those emotionally attached people … I cried when Machli died,” Doubleday said. “The paper isn’t related to my larger dissertation, it was truly just my interest in her unique position in the world as an incredible celebrity.”