A tiger of unusually advanced age—19—died Thursday at a park in India, prompting an outpouring of support from the public.
The tigress, named Machli, had been the star attraction at Ranthambore National Park, a popular tourist destination in north-west India. She was one of the country's most famous tigers and has appeared in several wildlife documentaries (learn more about tigers there). Machli—whose name is the Hindi word for fish, due to fish-like markings on her face—was even sometimes known as the “Queen of Ranthambore,” in part because of her famous battle with a crocodile there, says Krithi Karanth, a National Geographic Explorer who studies tigers and other wildlife in India
Machli (also written as Machali or Machhli) reportedly died of old age. She had stopped eating or moving for about a week before her death.
Tigers in the wild usually only live 12 to 14 years, says Karanth, who saw Machli at her home in Ranthambore years ago. But the tigress lived to such an old age thanks to care by forest officials.
The famous tiger brought in a reported $10 million to the park every year, but Karanth says it's important not to get too distracted by individual animals. Tigers remain critically threatened in the wild, she says.
A global survey published in April estimated there are 3,890 wild tigers, up from 3,200 in 2010, when countries announced a historic commitment to double the population by 2022. (Some scientists have criticized that survey, but it remains the most comprehensive to date.)
According to the survey, two-thirds of the world's tigers now live in India, where they’ve increased from 1,706 to 2,226 during the past five years. The country has stepped up anti-poaching patrols and offers compensation to farmers or villagers who experience injury or loss from tigers, as a means of preventing retaliatory killings. India has also invested in sustainable tourism around tiger reserves, a model that seems to be working so well that officials are talking about expanding the reserve system. (Learn more about tiger conservation in India.)
National Geographic's Big Cats Initiative has supported much of this work, some of which is overseen by Karanth.
"The stakes continue to be great and tigers remain at risk of global loss," conservationist Luke Dollar, who manages the Big Cats Initiative, recently told National Geographic.
Machli contributed to the future of her species by giving birth to 11 cubs over the years, whose offspring live on in the park. A ceremony was held by officials to mark her passing.
"Individuals are important to engage the public, but the fate of tigers rests on healthy populations that are able to breed and disperse," says Karanth.