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Last photographs of the Elephant Queen is a blog post from the BeetleCam category.

Last photographs of the Elephant Queen

Posted by Will on

F_MU1 was an incredible elephant. For more than 60 years, she lived a peaceful life in a quiet corner of Tsavo in Kenya.

When I first saw her I was awestruck, for she had the most amazing tusks I had ever seen. If I hadn’t looked upon her with my own eyes, I might not have believed that such an elephant could exist in our world. If there were a Queen of Elephants, it would surely have been her.

These are amongst the last images captured of her. Shortly after they were taken, she died of natural causes. She had survived through periods of terrible poaching and it was a victory that her life was not ended prematurely by a snare, bullet or poisoned arrow.

F_MU1 was an elephant that few people outside Tsavo knew about. Photographing her, in partnership with Tsavo Trust and Kenya Wildlife Service, was one of the greatest honours of my career. What follows is the story of how I came to capture these images…

Elephants of Tsavo

It was August 2017 and I was embarking on a project that would keep me occupied for the best part of two years. I had partnered with Tsavo Trust to produce a new coffee table photography book focusing on their work and the elephants of Tsavo.

Shortly after arriving in Kenya, I found myself in a Land Rover with Kyalo, Katana and Christine, from Tsavo Trust’s “Tembo 2” research team. The old vehicle was rattling along a narrow dirt track flanked by thick bush. Circling overhead was Richard Moller, founder of Tsavo Trust, in a small spotter plane. He was on the radio guiding us towards an extraordinary cow elephant known to Tsavo Trust by the code F_MU1.

Richard Moller in the Tsavo Trust plane

We had been looking for this elephant for several days, but finding her in a vast wilderness the size of Switzerland had proven difficult. Now Richard had spotted her from the air and we were converging on her position. I had a feeling of great excitement mixed with anxiety that she may yet evade us in the thick vegetation.

Kyalo swung the Land Rover off the dirt track towards the circling aircraft and started weaving left and right as he sought an unobstructed path through the bush. We eventually emerged out into a dusty clearing and Richard’s voice came through on the radio, “She’s heading your way, you should be able to see her”.

Over the bushes I caught a glimpse of an elephant’s back and seconds later she stepped out into the open. I was speechless.

F_MU1 was skinny and old but she strode forward with stately grace. Her tusks were so long that they scraped the ground in front of her. She was like a relic from a bygone era.

Last of her Kind

We stayed with her for the rest of the morning and she led us to an waterhole. It was the height of a gruelling dry season and many elephants had gathered to delight in the cool water. Some would have trekked so far in search of food that it may have been two or three days since they last drank.

F_MU1 patiently waited her turn at the water. The terrain was flat and open – a perfect opportunity for me to deploy BeetleCam. With this, I aimed to get ground-level images showing her amazing tusks stretching down towards the camera.

I gradually edged BeetleCam into position in front of her and she contemplated it benignly. I looked down at the live view on my wireless monitor and had to pinch myself – I could scarcely believe that this photograph was about to materialise! It was a feeling of privilege and euphoria that will stay with me forever.

Elephant Queen

With the Tembo 2 team to guide me, I managed to photograph F_MU1 several more times. She always proved to be the most exceptional subject. Her temperament was gentle and calm. Sometimes she would come so close to me that I could have touched her.

One day, we were checking another waterhole and came across her while she was drinking. I managed to manoeuvre BeetleCam around in front of her before she moved off and captured the image below. As I looked at the live view, she reminded me of a mammoth!

Mammoth

The ongoing drought was making life very hard for the elephants – particularly the youngsters and the very old. It was almost certainly a contributing factor in F_MU1’s death a few weeks later. There was little for the elephants to eat except the branches of thorny acacia trees. One afternoon we watched as F_MU1 pulled a large branch down and spent the next hour or so eating every last scrap. I was again able to deploy BeetleCam to capture some unusual perspectives.

Helix

On another occasion, we found her as she was leaving a waterhole. We circled around in front of her so I could position BeetleCam on the elephant path that I expected her to take. It was a hit or miss procedure; often I guessed wrong path and we would have to circle around to try again. Sometimes I got lucky and she would pass within inches of my camera. It was in this manner that I captured one of my favourite images – the image which would go on to grace the cover of my book.

Relic

My last encounter with F_MU1 was at another waterhole. It was a memorable morning because elephants and a large herd of buffalo were battling for control of the waterhole. When eventually it quietened down, F_MU1 arrived and I had BeetleCam perfectly positioned to capture one last image of her… the Queen of Elephants…

Land of Giants

By leaving the BeetleCam motionless next to waterholes and paths, the elephants quickly came to ignore it. At times it was a bit nerve-racking to have my camera just inches from such colossal animals, but they rarely touched it. The greatest threat to BeetleCam came when fighting erupted between bad-tempered elephants jostling for position at the waterhole; in this manner, BeetleCam was inadvertently kicked a few times, but fortunately always emerged unscathed.

Giants Footsteps

Often, BeetleCam was simultaneously capturing stills and video footage. Below is a short compilation of resulting footage, including some beautiful clips of F_MU1.

As a wildlife photographer, a subject like F_MU1 is incredibly rare; a creature that is unique – possibly the most remarkable of her kind – and yet an animal that few have photographed before. The time I spent with her was a real privilege.

Eating Acacia

There is a new nature documentary titled “The Elephant Queen” featuring one of Tsavo’s beautiful cow tuskers (a different individual I believe). It has not been released yet but keep an eye out for it as I am sure it is going to be incredible.

I would like to thank Kenya Wildlife Service for the crucial support they provided. Thanks also to Sony for a grant that helped fund this project. Thank you to my friend Chris Gordon for first introducing me to Richard Moller. Finally, thank you to Richard Moller, the Tembo 2 team – Kyalo, Katana and Christine – and everyone at Tsavo Trust, without whom I never could have captured these images.

Top Wildlife Sites

These photographs are featured in my new book, “Land of Giants” which also includes several of Tsavo’s other iconic tuskers. Land of Giants will be released on 20th March and is available to pre-order from WildlifePhoto.com and Amazon UK. You can find out more about the book at www.landofgiantsbook.com

25 Comments

  1. Matt Bendt said: March 12, 2019 at 9:16 am

    Hi Will, I met you in the field in August 2017 in East Tsavo (Aussie Photography Group) Saw her up close up F_MU1 so special. I got some great shots of her! Will be in India late March 2019 on Safari but would love a signed copy of your book for sure. Love your images. Matt Bendt

  2. Subhash said: March 12, 2019 at 9:28 am

    My Dad used to take us on Safari in Tsavo, he was an artist teacher, Elephants were his favoured subject. I too followed his passion. Am not sure whether it was Her we had seen many times nearly 50 years ago, but Dad always said she was the One with most impressive tusks and was very concerned of her safety. Thank you so much for this superb story & photos.

  3. Siddhartha Mukherjee said: March 12, 2019 at 10:30 am

    Amazing work around one of the most majestic creatures on the planet. Thank you for inspiring me.

  4. Bruce Stewart said: March 12, 2019 at 11:15 am

    Empathy with nature is developmental, and is not easily attained. I have progressed a long way down that road. Reading your script and looking at the photos is both evocative and contributory to the continuing journey. It brought a lump to my throat

  5. Renier van Schalkwyk said: March 12, 2019 at 4:23 pm

    The elephants of Tsavo are amazing, and there are numerous trusts looking after them, but your story and photographs of a truly outstanding animal are very special. Very well done.

  6. Jos said: March 12, 2019 at 9:40 pm

    Thanks for the hope in this

  7. Bebe H said: March 13, 2019 at 1:56 am

    True natural beauty.
    Thank you for Sharing.
    We all need to take a look at what we have before it is all gone.

  8. Simon North said: March 13, 2019 at 8:42 am

    Congratulations on these magnificent images. I was in Tsavo East with the anti poaching unit. Very interested in the book.

  9. Mary Knight said: March 13, 2019 at 3:54 pm

    Magnificent photography. Magnificent subject. What an honor to be so blessed To witness One of God’s favorite creatures in our lifetime.

  10. Fleur said: March 13, 2019 at 11:40 pm

    Magnifiques photos !!
    Quelle belle Dame
    Que de douceur dans ses yeux
    Merci a vous

  11. Muralidharan Gopal said: March 14, 2019 at 10:33 am

    ‘Elephant Queen’ a rarity among rarities is a Great Treat both for the Eyes and Mind, through Your Images that exudes your Perseverance and Patience. Thank You Very Much for this Wonderful Share.

  12. Ed waters said: March 14, 2019 at 12:39 pm

    Beautiful and sad. She looks quite emaciated and no doubt malnourished. She’s been using those teeth (her last set) for probably 15-20 years and they are well worn out. I’m glad they know an accurate age. I still see written that elephant often live to 100. That’s just not the case. 60 is an ancient elephant.

  13. maria paiva said: March 14, 2019 at 1:37 pm

    It is wonderful to share this vision. Thank you for sharing.
    What a sweet and wonderful creature !!

  14. Robin Severson said: March 14, 2019 at 3:47 pm

    Thank you for sharing these beautiful, majestic animals. It’s a shame there are only about 20 left. I look forward to the book.

  15. Patricia Mansfield said: March 14, 2019 at 6:38 pm

    I have never been to Africa, I don’t even travel, but I love awesome pictures and have found most of them are of animals, yours make me realize and dream of all the beauty out there. Thank you.

  16. Benedict Wanjala said: March 14, 2019 at 7:04 pm

    It’s just amazing that we have such species in Africa. Get a signed copy please. Thanks.

  17. Elena Vasconez said: March 14, 2019 at 11:19 pm

    Thank you so much for such wonderful pictures and for bringing Africa to those of us who have never been there. Unfortunately this type of exposure to the world will only put them in danger. Poachers will go after these magnificent creatures and will probably kill the few that are left. Shining a light on them will only get them killed faster!

  18. Hirkena Eisimgudere said: March 15, 2019 at 10:36 am

    Breathtaking. Great job.

  19. Alejandro Carballo said: March 15, 2019 at 8:30 pm

    Beautiful / Hermoso
    Que gran trabajo, felicidades.

  20. Lisa Baricevic said: March 17, 2019 at 5:51 pm

    Breathtakingly Beautiful! So shameful that these glorious creatures will probably disappear if things don’t change quickly! Leaders of the world WAKE UP! Our children have the right to inherit this complex, diverse, LIVING planet! I thank you for your gorgeous pictures! May they inspire change!

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