A walk on the wild side

A walk on the wild side

Joyee Chan learns the tricks of the trade from noted wildlife photographer Jan Latta


Jan Latta bonds with a pair of cheetahs.
Jan Latta bonds with a pair of cheetahs.
Photos: Jan Latta
The location of a favourite afternoon hangout of a leap of leopards. The exact moment a mischievous panda cub will push its drowsy friend off its bed. How gerenuk, a breed of long-necked antelopes, feast on tender leaves of tall bushes by standing on their hind legs. Knowing these things is the secret to some magical images, says Jan Latta, a noted wildlife photographer.

"Anticipating the animal's next move is key," Latta told Young Post before speaking at last month's Young Readers Festival.

"It gets back to your homework - knowing their behaviour [and] body language. Because you will never get to see the animal in that place and that pose again."

A face-to-face encounter with a mountain gorilla in Rwanda in 1994 prompted the Australian to embark on a 14-year career documenting endangered species in Southeast Asia and Africa.

"I was devastated to learn that there were only 600 of these magnificent creatures left in the world" she says.

Gorillas became the subject of her first book. Her True to Life series of picture books for children has 12 titles so far. She believes man's next generation could change the fate of animals that are close to extinction, so these books are hugely important to her.

Having travelled all over the world, Latta says her favourite place is Africa's Maasai Mara National Reserve, in Kenya. There's something remarkable, she says, about its open grassy plains and days filled with interesting encounters.

Much of her photographic success comes from timing. She says it's best take your camera out at dawn or dusk as the golden sunlight guarantees brilliant pictures.

"Try to get a light in [the animal's] eyes or click the camera when it looks at you. It's very compelling," Latta says.

Latta's job has led to many great, intimate encounters with animals: she has slept in a tent while an elephant chewed leaves outside; lions have brushed their bodies against the side of her Jeep; she has been overwhelmed by four panda cubs, which crawled all over her and punched holes through her jeans with their sharp claws.

But perhaps her most memorable experience was stroking the throat of a cheetah, and feeling the vibrations caused by its purring. The cat was an orphan raised by humans and released into the wild. "Cheetahs are inquisitive," she says. "The fact that I wasn't frightened, I think, was the main reason, they allowed me to get close."

Before setting off on a journey, Latta reads up on her subject, speaks to scientists and employs a wildlife guide to accompany her during the trip. But no matter how well prepared she tries to be, nature always surprises her.

Giraffes are a case in point. It's common to see them bang their 1.8-metre-long necks against an opponent in combat. But Latta and her guide once witnessed the long-legged creatures kick-fighting, kangaroo-style, for almost an hour. "One [giraffe] was hooking his horns beneath another's belly and lifting its leg up in the air," she says. "The guide suspected one was teaching the other how to fight." She also learned in the wild that the animal, generally thought of as a quiet beast, makes a "grruu" sound when it is upset and wants to warn others of danger.

One huge, aggressive orang-utan was far more difficult to comprehend, though. Once in Borneo, Latta was aiming her camera at a 120kg male which was staring in her direction. He suddenly charged, sending nearby tourists running for their lives. "I thought I was wrong to look him in the eye, as with gorillas," which see it as a threat, she says. In fact the primate wasn't after her; she turned to see the male trying to woo a female orang-utan.

Understanding animals also helps her to recognise potential dangers. Latta had a fright once when an elephant charged at her after flapping its ears and trumpeting, only to stop a few metres away. She learned that it was a mock attack, intended to drive interlopers away from its territory. Latta says elephants can be aggressive for several reasons, such as when the bulls are ready to mate, or when a mother wants to protect her baby.

No matter how powerful the images in her book, Latta admits some of these things can only be learned in the field.

Orang-utans, gerenuk and pandas are just some of the creatures Latta has encountered. Photos: Jan Latta



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