The Shanghai International Literary Festival returns to M on the Bund from March 10-22, bringing together authors of all stripes. Known for her popular children’s books that are dedicated to celebrating endangered species, writer and photographer Jan Latta shares some of her heart-stopping adventures in the wild.
How did you first get into wildlife photography?
When I came face-to-face with a mountain gorilla in Rwanda, that moment changed my life. My guide said there were fewer than 600 mountain gorillas left in the world, and I thought that was so sad. I wanted to do something to help, so I became a wildlife photographer to tell the animal’s true-to-life story.
When I decided to become an author, wildlife photographer and publisher, I thought the concept should be aimed at young children. Hopefully, they would be the next generation to save the endangered animals.
Each of your books follows an endangered species. How did you come up with the concept?
I followed elephants, dangerous rhinos, prides of lions, gentle giraffes and had a wonderful experience with two cheetahs. The pandas in the Wolong mountains in China, jungles of Borneo with orangutans, Sri Lanka for the elusive leopard and Uganda for Dr Jane Goodall's chimps.
Each True-to-Life book has photos of animals in their natural habitat and simple text including facts, maps, fun activities and educational videos. The first book Grandy the Gorilla, was published in Hong Kong. It was a great success.
Have you ever felt in danger while following these animals?
Two years ago, a lion chased a wildebeest right through the middle of the tent I was in. That was a frightening first but the Maasi protected me.
I’ve been charged by elephants – the cranky bull elephants in musth are especially dangerous. I had the most magical moment of my life when a cheetah walked up to me. A second cheetah appeared and it was such a wonderful experience… I felt very calm. I believe some animals react to human emotions.
How was your experience in the mountains with pandas?
It was fabulous playing with the 12 baby pandas at Wolong. They were so funny. One even tried to climb my leg and wouldn’t let go, he was adorable. But it was a difficult trip to organize and the approval process took nine months to stay at the Wolong Centre.
What can people expect from your Lit Fest workshop?
I hope they find my presentation exciting and inspiring. I’m showing videos I’ve created in Borneo, India, Sri Lanka, Africa and some of my heart-stopping adventures in the wild. There will be Q&A about endangered animals.
When I talk at festivals, it’s so rewarding to inspire children to save endangered animals and to hear them say, ‘I want to do what you do when I grow up.’
What advice do you have for kids who are interested in photography and animals?
When I’m following wild animals I have to know everything about them to keep myself safe. So children should read everything they can about animals and watch documentaries to see the animals in the wild. Practice photography at zoos. Watch the family pet and try to capture its funny antics. To get a great photograph, they need to know what the animal is going to do next.
Later, after high school, they could volunteer to look after orphaned animals in Africa, India and Borneo. Also sponsor an elephant at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust – that is a wonderful and rewarding experience.
Throughout your career, have you been encouraged by the conservation efforts of these animals or have things gone worse?
I think the conservation efforts are encouraging with the popularity of David Attenborough, Jane Goodall and recently the Royals getting involved. There are some great charities where people can sponsor an animal to help the survival of the species.
China has announced banning ivory and through social media there is an awareness that if you wear an ivory bracelet, a beautiful elephant has died for that piece of jewelry. Also on social media, hunters are being named and shamed for killing animals as a sport. But, we have a long way to go to protect the endangered animals in the world.