Skip to main content
Original Issue


During the trip to India that ended in her tragic death, Ylla (left, seated on elephant) photographed a rhino capture (right) and wrote about

Ylla, the great photographer of animals whose real name was Camilla Koffler, died in India March 30, 1955 after she was thrown from a jeep while taking pictures of a bullock race. She had gone to India in late August of 1954 at the invitation of the Maharaja of Mysore and under sponsorship of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. She was a guest of the maharaja until mid-December, when she went to Trivandrum and subsequently to other parts of the subcontinent in quest of stories. The article below consists of selections from the journal she kept throughout the India trip. The complete journal, along with 77 of her last photographs, will be published October 29 in book form (Animals in India, Harper & Brothers, $10).

First meeting with Maharaja of Mysore
Today I was taken in a palace car to meet His Highness. I was brought to the Small Palace where I was met by a private secretary who took me through various galleries to a simple drawing room where I was received by His Highness. He was seated below a huge oil painting of one of his ancestors. The maharaja wore a turban, and—in accordance with the current style among Indian men—had a neatly trimmed mustache. At 35, His Highness is rather portly; he speaks very slowly. We were served tea and coffee. His Highness remarked that Mysore was proud of its coffee. I chose coffee; it was excellent.

Visit to soldiers' barracks in Mysore
Amusing—and touching—incident while visiting the barracks of the maharaja's soldiers. In the room of one of them, I was greatly amazed to see, on a wall covered with Hindu religious pictures and photographs of the Queen of England and Prince Philip, a clipping of one of my photographs that appeared in a British magazine. Pasted on gold paper, a double-page color picture showing two kittens playing was hung in the middle of the wall, as though it had been given the "place of honor."

On the children of Mysore
The children here are generally a nuisance. They appear from everywhere, are attracted by the pale skin and dress of Westerners and, in a minute, form a dense wall around their object of curiosity. My bearer, Mohan Lal, always tries to chase them off, but they do not go. When I cry in despair: "Lal, Lal, they are in my way. Get them back, get them away!" they repeat my outbursts in a mocking chorus. Lal, poor man, is embarrassed on two counts: he understands all their rude remarks which, unfortunately, escape me, and he is put off by my own behavior. No doubt, he thinks I am most undignified. In fact, I am sure I embarrass him every time I jump out from the palace car and crouch down in the middle of the road to photograph a buffalo or a cow.

Second interview with the Maharaja of Mysore
When I reached the palace, I had to wait a bit in the trophy room. Among the trophies on the walls were the heads of 14 tigers, six bears, 10 bison, deer and leopards. The maharaja was dressed completely in white. A sparrow flew in and out of the room (the sparrow had made a nest in one of the lamps). I remarked on the extraordinary familiarity of animals in India. "They blend in with humans here much better than in any other country," said the maharaja. He told me he had killed over a hundred tigers. Tiger hunts are carried on in the nearby jungles. He explained that he and his party sit in a machan (a box like an opera loge, situated high up in the trees) during the hunt while beaters drive the tigers and the drumbeats create a heightened rhythm.

Visit to elephant working camp, Mudumalai Reserve, Mysore

As it is Sunday, the elephants are not at work but are free to graze in the jungle the entire day. Three of the elephants have babies, 6, 8 and 12 months old. An expectant elephant mother is put on a big rice and coconut diet; after the baby is born, she does not work for six months (not so much to conserve her strength, but to keep the baby out of the way of the working elephants). The elephants are well looked after: they are scrubbed in the river for an hour in the morning and in the evening and are fed boiled rice after they have had their bath. At night they graze in the forest.

There is great excitement in the camp. A big tusker lost a tusk in a battle with a rogue. (The tusk, covered with blood, was left lying on the ground.) The tusker is kept within an enclosure through the night to prevent him from seeking out the rogue for revenge.

The baby elephants are putting on some marvelous antics. The oldest one kicks, throws his trunk about and is generally very fresh; the youngest is practically standing on his head. In the river they jump all over their mothers and enjoy playing together; they splash, submerge and really seem to love the water.

Third visit to His Highness, at the summer palace
First, a game of tennis, then a lengthy film session. Met HH's mother, a shy, charming lady. Unbelievable game of tennis, each ball being chased by a mastiff and a Boston terrier; during the game Major Denis Conan Doyle, son of the British author, and his wife Nina, the Russian Princess Mdivani, drive up in a gray Rolls-Royce.

An elephant hunt

HH arranged an elephant hunt for Conan Doyle. We started out in the morning (in a Daimler), had a snack in a luxurious resthouse, then changed for the hunting car, continued for some miles and then proceeded on elephant back. The maharaja, Conan Doyle and two aides were on the first elephant; a forest ranger, HH's two uncles and I were on the second. The forest was very dense; the party was led by two trackers who walked ahead of the first elephant. After we advanced in this manner for about 20 minutes, we suddenly stopped. The forest ranger pointed at the thick bush directly ahead of us and said: "In there. He is in there."

I admit I was scared. If the first shot were to wound the elephant rather than kill him, the denseness of trees and bushes all around us would make it impossible to retreat quickly and, if our elephants were to battle with the wounded one, we would certainly be swept off their backs by the tree branches.

I was never afraid in Africa. Although we often approached big herds of elephants, it was always in the plains, and our intentions were always peaceful. But here we had come with the idea of killing.

No doubt HH knew exactly how dangerous the situation was. For although this was to be Conan Doyle's hunt, a volley of shots burst forth from the first elephant. I heard him say to Conan Doyle immediately after the shooting: "Congratulations, your first shot killed him."

We advanced through the thick bush; there he lay on his side, the big, beautiful tusker, dead with open eyes.

When we got back to the car—Nina Conan Doyle and HH's mother had followed us in the hunting car—Nina Conan Doyle burst into tears when she was told an elephant had been killed. She said: "Why come to India to kill?"

A November tiger hunt

At last the phone call to inform HH that the tigers have taken the bait. The hunting party is gathered hurriedly; HH, his mother, sister, Conan Doyle and a few others; the party leaves in two Rolls-Royces. First to the resthouse for coffee, then by hunting car to the machan (this one consisting of two rows of seats). We are told there are at least three tigers. The beating has started; it is far away, but draws nearer at an even pace, creating an atmosphere of immediacy and tenseness. There are 130 beaters. The first tiger shoots by like lightning. HH did not fire as it was a small female. Another tiger now jumps behind a nearby bush where he hides and refuses to come out. The beaters get closer and closer, and the tiger finally does jump out, is caught in the net and shot. I thought the hunt was over, but it appeared another tiger was hiding somewhere within the hunting area. The tom-tom starts again; after 20 minutes the third tiger charges across, very far left, very fast, gets hit by HH, but not killed, and speeds away. The dead tiger is very beautiful; poor, beautiful thing, with glassy eyes and soft paws.

The tension worked up during the hour and a half of beating and excited voices was so great, it has quite exhausted me. What is the point to all this, really what is the point? The poor, harassed animals! Before they appeared, the bamboos were alive with monkeys and jungle fowl; and then the savage cries and tom-tom of the beaters invading the quiet and dignity of the jungle. Only if we approach animals innocently, only then, it seems to me, can we be fearless and free.

The capture of an elephant
Very rough ride to the interior of the forest where a hundred pits had been dug, and two elephants captured: a baby tusker, about 3 years old, in one pit; and an elephant mother, about 25 years old, in another. The baby was being fed, but not the mother (if she regained her strength she would make it difficult to get her out of the pit). The roping, the first and most important part of the capture, is a delicate undertaking. The trapped elephants are wild ones to begin with, but their increased wildness, their rage at having been caught, makes them a frightening sight. To distract the captured elephant, he is fed sugar cane, and large tropical leaves are waved at him. Once the rope is tied around the head and leg, large logs are rolled into the pit, which enables the men to pull him out of the pit. Two kunkis (tame, trained elephants) surround the captured one when he comes out of the pit; their presence calms the wild elephant and gives him reassurance.

Another tiger hunt

Today's hunt was different. The hunting party consisted of HH, Major Singh, two aides, Mr. Darasha (HH's secretary); I was the only woman; 80 beaters, a spacious sunny area in front of the machan. The beating had not lasted more than 20 minutes when tiger growls were heard from behind a bush very near the machan. He did not come out, but it was evident from the rustling among the bushes that he ran way over to the left, about 80 yards away. The bushes were heavy, and I did not even catch a glimpse of the tiger, but HH fired and said: "I am certain he is dead." Major Singh was skeptical if the tiger had been hit at all. The lorry was brought, was driven into the bush, and suddenly there was wild cheering: the tiger was dead: I cannot understand how HH could have shot so accurately under these circumstances; no one had actually seen the tiger running or hiding.

The tiger turned out to be the maharaja's record, and came very close to India's record. Six feet nine inches long, he weighed over 600 pounds. HH was so pleased and excited he could not eat his lunch. I was pleased, too, which surprised me, as I am never pleased to see an animal killed.

After a flight to Trivandrum

I went to see a doctor (I have had a nasty skin irritation) who refused to look directly at me, and who was most embarrassed when I asked him to examine the spots on my thighs—the irritation had spread all over. Nevertheless, although he scarcely examined me, he promises a complete cure within two days.

Everyone has gone to a famous astrologer in a nearby village; retained by one of two wealthy Trivandrum families, he is supposed to be very good. It was suggested that I go along with them, but I refused. If something terrible is supposed to happen to me I would rather not know beforehand.

In the Gir Forest, Saurashtra

I have come to Saurashtra as a guest of state and was received most cordially. The Gir Forest is one of the few lion reserves left in India, and the people in the surrounding villages are proud of the forest. The villagers take pride in their lions. There is a superstition here that if the lions were to leave this vicinity, the buffalo cows would cease to give milk; and also that if a cow is attacked by a lion but survives, she ceases to conceive.

Nilgai—the large antelopes of India—look like giraffes in these parts. What makes them look so large is the smallness of the thorny trees, which must be some kind of acacia; these, the burnt yellow grass, the wide open spaces are reminiscent of the African plains.

Coming home, I saw two lionesses and three cubs on the road.

The Gir Forest, a few days later

Left early this morning to look for nilgai; very near a village spotted a lioness and her three-month-old cub. Near the road lay the kill: a big buffalo cow, belly open, intestines and tail already disposed of.

On the road, we met several ox carts and peasants on foot and warned them of the lions ahead. A detour would be safest, we told them. But lions here are very much part of the life of the villagers. The peasants, armed with sticks and stones, thanked us, but proceeded.

Rhino capture at the Kaziranga wildlife sanctuary, Assam

The rhino capture was postponed until my arrival. The Philadelphia Zoo bought a young female rhino two years ago, and now they ordered a young male. For that reason everything was arranged—pits were dug, and elephants were kept ready to drive rhinos toward the pits during the following night, the safest time for bringing in a captured rhino. However, this morning a report came that a rhino had fallen into one of the pits. The ranger, Mr. Das, went out to the pit, and I went with him to watch the capture—the rhino has to be roped and moved into a cage.

Roping a rhino is complicated, but getting him into the cage is a very complex and strenuous job. This difficulty was increased by the fact that the cage took a long time to arrive at the pit; it was very hot and the rhino suffered from the exposure to the sun. By the time the cage was brought it was noon, and the rhino, no doubt exhausted from not only the heat but his resistance to his capture, collapsed while being pulled into the cage and died. Mr. Das was terribly upset.

Photographing the rhinos from a "hideout"
Since rhinos are so easily frightened off, I decided to try my luck today by making use of Ellis Dungan's hideout, which is a kind of machan made of hides, a most makeshift contraption, absolutely no protection against a bad-tempered rhino. But I got into the hideout, crouched there, hoping to be able to photograph some rhinos; Das and his three elephants were supposed to round them up and drive them past me. And they did. One rhino was particularly obliging, stopping directly in front of my hideout, quietly looked around, then wandered off. At one point, he was no more than two feet away from me, which was a most thrilling experience.

On a March day, the monkey temple in Benares
Monkeys everywhere. Completely unpredictable. One approaches me quietly for peanuts, which I give him, but suddenly, for no good reason, he starts yelling and all the monkeys scatter. A little beggar boy comes in to tell me one of the monkeys has snatched away one of my shoes which I left at the door. Lots of children gather and, led by the beggar boy, a chase begins. The monkey is chased everywhere, on the roof, up and down, in and out of rooms and yards. Finally they catch him and bring me the shoe triumphantly.

A morning ride on the Ganges
People bathing, saying their prayers, washing their clothes, doing exercises; pigeons sitting on bamboo rafts in the river; a corpse clad in red ready for burning; cows standing at the river's edge drinking, walking away, dogs playing—a strange world, impenetrable, immensely peaceful.

Breakfast with Mr. Nehru and his daughter in New Delhi

Also in the breakfast party was a manager of Tata (vast industrial firm), two Parsi ladies with short, white hair, and two little girls. When the others arrived, Indira suggested we start breakfast ahead of her father, who eats so quickly he would catch up with us at any rate. However, a few minutes later Nehru arrived, and we all sat down to breakfast together. Nehru was most affectionate with the children, but I believe he was a bit put off by my presence; he probably was looking forward to a quiet breakfast with just close friends and family. Nevertheless, it was actually he who was responsible for my presence; he had insisted to be present when I photograph his pandas. Bhimsa, the male, is at his best when Nehru is around.

The pandas are absolutely charming. Tashi, the female, is prettier and bigger, but extremely shy. They are in a large cage that can be entered. They are fond of peas in husks, which they eat out of their feeder's hand. When he feeds them, Nehru wears white gloves to avoid being scratched. They are away in the mountains for six months—to escape the heat; the rest of the time they spend in an enclosure on the Nehru grounds.

A visit to the Maharaja of Bharatpur

The Maharaja of Bharatpur is certainly one of the nicest and most charming men I have ever met, completely disarming and most cordial. He told me that he is keeping a full year's mourning for his wife—only 13 days are customary for a deceased woman. Contrary to other men in his position, he uses no perfume, eats only certain foods and only attends very special functions.

A buffet dinner was served on the lawn, attended by about 20 or so men who all sat in a half circle, far away from me. Two orchestras entertained.

Dinner on the palace roof gardens

A most romantic spectacle. The roof gardens had originally been laid out for the M's grandmother, who was in purdah and who wished to take her walks in total seclusion. Now a round baldachin-covered structure in the middle of the roof serves for reclining—a great many colorful cushions are heaped on the floor. On the balcony above, a singer performed, accompanied by an orchestra; the indirect lighting was very soft, and we were served on very low, separate tables. The M wore wide white Indian trousers, an emerald-green shirt and a brocaded vest.

The M has a warmth and simplicity that are most endearing.

When I wanted to photograph some deer in the forest, he said: "Do not disturb the deer."

I said with surprise: "But the government has given me permission to photograph them."

"Yes," he answered, "but do, please, take your photographs from a considerable distance, so they will not be disturbed."

"Couldn't we make them run?" I asked. "We don't want to see them only in a standing pose."

"The government orders that they not be disturbed," he replied.

"What is the activity of most deer in the forest?" I asked, hoping to get him around to see my point.

"They graze," he said, "and rest in the shade."

"Do they not sometimes run?" I probed further.

"Yes, they do run."

"Do they die as a result of it?"

"No," he said. "They do not die."

"Then why should it be bad for them to run? Exercise will do them good. Aren't men stronger and healthier when they exercise?"

"Yes, they are," he said. "All right, you may go ahead."

A weekend at a palace

The maharaja with 16 of his guests drove to one of his palaces about an hour's drive from here. A truck-load of servants had left ahead of us. In the afternoon a tiger hunt was arranged.

Three machans were set up, two shooters were placed in each. The M, some other guests and I watched the hunt from an observation tower. Fifty beaters drove out one tiger, who was wounded, growled furiously, retreated to a bush and was found dead the next day.

In the evening, a buffet on the lawn of the palace; again an orchestra and a singer.

Next day a panther hunt in the afternoon. We watched from a machan set up 50 feet from the bait. By 6:30 it was too dark for pictures, even with a Tri-X. Shortly after 6:30 a panther was spotted, but he had seen us and did not come down. A hyena comes by; night falls; the birds retire with a farewell of great, though melodious noise, and we leave at 7:45. The peace and serenity cannot be described.

The next day, the maharaja asked me:

"What do you think of my guests? I like to discuss them. When you leave, we will discuss you, too."

The accident which caused Ylla's death took place outside Bharatpur two days later.


An alert in Kaziranga: Deep in the great Indian game preserve, a pair of rhinos look up sharply as Ylla and hunters approach. The hunters hoped to drive a young male into a pit where he could be lassoed—but sometimes the wrong rhino was trapped (next page).


An escape and a capture: Stilled by indecision, two rhinos pause in the tall amber grasses of Kaziranga (left) to stare at the elephant-mounted interlopers in their sanctuary. Moments later, in retreat before the advancing elephant, one of the animals stumbles into a trapping pit but manages to struggle free (below left) and escape into the surrounding jungles. On the next day, a less fortunate rhino encounters the same fate. This one is unable to free himself and, since he will die if left in the pit, must be extricated by the trapping party. The task is a dangerous one. Below: a trapper approaches the raging beast to place another of the many lassos necessary to quiet him. For climax of the capture, turn page.



The climax is death: Fighting against time and blistering sun to extricate rhino, native trappers (above left) build ramp connecting pit with trapping cage. Once completed, ropes are released and rhino labors up ramp. Part way (above right) the animal collapses, a victim of sun and exhaustion. Below: dejected trappers survey tragedy in Kaziranga.