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The True Story of Machli, the World's Most Famous Tiger

In her 19 years, Machli attacked crocodiles, defended cubs from males, and managed to survive for years with one eye.

Meet Machli, the World's Most Famous Tiger Machli's fierce determination and distinctive appearance have made her a legend among tigers.

The Bengal tigress, which dominated a prime, 350-square-mile territory within India’s Ranthambore National Park, became a favorite among tourists for her tenacity in the face of incredible odds.

Watch "The World's Most Famous Tiger," part of Big Cat Week on NatGeo WILD, on Tuesday, December 12 at 9/8c.

In addition to living much longer than most other wild tigresses, which usually top out around 15 years of age, Machli killed a 14-foot crocodile, defended her territory against much larger male tigers, and raised cubs even after she’d lost her canine teeth and the use of one eye.

Many consider Machli to have been the most photographed tiger on Earth, and her image appears in innumerable magazines, newspapers, blogs, calendars, and more.

Kalli Doubleday, a carnivore researcher at the University of Texas, Austin, says she grew up as a big cat lover and remembers watching Machli in documentaries.

But it never occurred to her just how unique this one cat was until she saw news reports that the Forest Department of Rajasthan planned to preserve Machli with taxidermy when she finally died. (Also read how veterinarians performed eye surgery on a tiger.)

People wanting to see the tigress earned the park approximately $10 million each year, and the wildlife officials were wary of losing their star.

This didn’t ultimately come to pass, but it inspired Doubleday to study her celebrity, and whether the care she received from humans blurred the lines between her being a domesticated vs. a wild animal.

National Geographic spoke to Doubleday about her research, published in the journal Geoforum in February 2017, to learn just what made this tiger unlike any other.

What made Machli unique? Why did people gravitate toward her more than other tigers?

Machli played right into the tourist aspect of tiger reserves. Not only was she camera friendly, laying around in broad daylight, but she kept doing these feats that were documentary-worthy.

She was a cub to an already famous tigress [her mother’s name was also Machli], and then once she grew up, she challenged her mother. This happens sometimes. When she won, she became the Queen of the Ranthambore Lakes, the most prime tiger territory of the whole park. (Related: "India's Tigers May Be Rebounding, in Rare Success for Endangered Species.")

She took on and killed a full-grown crocodile twice her size, in front of tourists, none the less.

Then she raised a litter of cubs in her older years without any canine teeth. That’s incredible.

She defended her cubs from full-grown male tigers, which are significantly bigger. And she won over and over and over. Male tigers are regularly credited with killing cubs because, just like lions, if the cubs are killed the female will become ready for breeding.

But she was able to protect all of her litters over and over again. And again, she did these things on camera.

Can you describe how people’s relationship with Machli changed as she aged?

What happened is Machli lost her canine teeth and became this odd predicament of an elderly, wild tigress. (Learn how to help big cats with National Geographic Society's Big Cats Initiative.)

Her celebrity up until that point had been harnessed for these documentaries and by the national government of India to provide funds for Ranthambore. And so this huge audience of people all over the world who cared for her started to say, 'Do something, Forest Department.'

It became unbefitting for her to starve to death, because that’s what would have happened in nature.

That outpouring of international love for her essentially provoked the Forest Department of Rajasthan to feed her. It was a situation that no one had really been in—to have such a famous wild animal that needed to be cared for all of a sudden.

And there were people advocating on all sides, people wanting her to be captured and put into a zoo so that she could be fed, so that she could be groomed and taken care of. There were other people who said that doing so would completely undignify her. (See incredible pictures of endangered tigers around the world.)

The Forest Department decided that to appease all sides, the best thing to do would be to leave her in Ranthambore, her wild place, but to care for her by providing food for her.

Wait. You mean they brought Machli carcasses or also live prey?

They were tethered. Literally, they would walk out a goat or something else and tether it to a pole where she usually fed.

Was this something tourists could watch, like in Jurassic Park?

Tourists had access to see the feeding. If you’re going to take such a risk to have such a controversial management practice, they weren’t going to just leave it to chance. They kept an eye on her to make sure she was eating. She was able to kill these animals even though she didn’t have canines. She was just doing it with the power of her jaws, clamping down hard enough to cut off the wind. (Read "6 Nat Geo Photographers Share Their Favorite Wild Cat Moments.")

What happened when Machli finally died?

Naturally, in a kind of Machli form, she retreated, with a lot of dignity, and one day just went and laid down and didn’t wake up. And when she was discovered… it really is just an emotional and impressive thing.

She was given basically a traditional Hindu death. She was wrapped in white linen with flower garlands put all over her body. All of the forest guards that were there stood at attention whenever she was cremated.

Endangered animals like leopards and tigers are cremated in India so that their skins can’t be poached and sold on the black market. But to go to this extra level and give her an actual, true funeral ... it’s a special moment in conservation history.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.