Kenya's 'Elephant Queen' immortalized in remarkable photographs
The moment British wildlife photographer Will Burrard-Lucas first encountered the majestic “tusker” elephant quite literally took his breath away.
Officially classified as F_MU1, the towering giant was more reverently nicknamed Kenya’s “queen of the elephants.” For days in August 2017, Burrard-Lucas and a research team from the Tsavo Trust had scoured an area the size of Switzerland looking for this legendary creature. When she was finally spotted and Burrard-Lucas got into position, her grand entrance was like something torn from the pages of a natural world long since lost.
“When I first saw her I was awestruck, for she had the most amazing tusks I had ever seen,” he wrote in a blog post. “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.”
The queen towering over other members of her herd in Kenya. (Photo: Will Burrard-Lucas in partnership with Tsavo Trust)
For the next several days, Burrard-Lucas and the research team followed and photographed F_MU1 as she and her herd searched for food and water under severe drought conditions. The Tsavo Conservation Area in Kenya is home to these last remaining “big tuskers,” with the tusks of some cow elephants weighing more than 100 pounds on each side. Of the 20 or so believed left in the world, half are found within Tsavo.
“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,” Burrard-Lucas wrote. “The time I spent with her was a real privilege.”
Each of the queen’s tusks is estimated to have weighed more than 100 pounds. (Photo: Will Burrard-Lucas in partnership with Tsavo Trust)
In an effort to get as close as possible to this stately giant without disturbing her, Burrard-Lucas deployed a device of his own making called the Beetlecam. This small robotic buggy comes integrated with a professional camera that allows for the safe capture, like the image above, of some exceptional up-close moments.
“I gradually edged BeetleCam into position in front of her and she contemplated it benignly,” Burrard-Lucas said. “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.”
You can see a video of the BeetleCam in action around the herd below.
And for those wondering, yes, the little robotic buggy doesn’t always make it back in one piece. In 2010, a curious lion decided to maul one of Burrard-Lucas’ early models.
The queen as seen through the lens of the tiny BeetleCam. (Photo: Will Burrard-Lucas in partnership with Tsavo Trust)
Unlike most other stories about endangered species that increasingly end in tragedy tied to poaching or trophy hunting, F_MU1 died shortly after Burrard-Lucas captured these photos not from violence, but old age. According to park officials, she was a little over 60 years old when she passed away from 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,” he wrote.
The cover for Will Burrard-Lucas’ new book ‘Land of Giants.’ (Photo: Will Burrard-Lucas in partnership with Tsavo Trust)
Additional photos of this beloved departed “Queen of the Elephants,” as well as many of the other members of her beautiful herd are available in Burrard-Lucas’ new coffee table book “Land of Giants.” Created in partnership with the Tsavo Trust and Kenya Wildlife Service, the tome’s 150 photographs were captured over the course of several expeditions by Burrard-Lucas in 2017 and 2018.
“The aim of the book is to support Tsavo Trust and communicate an inspiring message: that these amazing elephants are still out there and it is not too late to save them,” he wrote.