South Africa

Scorching Nights and Cheetah Bites

Scorching Nights and Cheetah Bites

In Shannon Wild’s line of work, cuts, bruises and crushing bites from giant predatory cats are just part of the job, discovers Nick Johns-Wickberg.

She latched onto me before I knew what was happening,” wildlife photographer and cinematographer Shannon Wild says of the moment a cheetah went in for the kill.

Shannon had been working with the habituated cheetah on a video shoot all morning and had, in her own words, become “complacent”, missing the signs that the animal was getting flustered. She crouched down to set up her next shot and, like a flash, the cheetah had her pinned down, its jaws clamping hard on her left arm, which it mistook for her neck.

Had Shannon’s head not been tilted to the side, that bite could well have been fatal. As it turned out, she suffered serious nerve and tendon damage, the effects of which she still feels two years later.

“I wasn’t able to shoot for two months after that as it healed, and I still have daily nerve pain and not complete flexibility in my left arm, but it could have been so much worse,” she says of the eye-opening incident. “Instinct told me to relax and not fight it, which was the best thing to do in the situation, as fighting her would have led to worse injuries.”

It served as an important lesson for the South African-based freelancer from Australia. She gained a newfound respect for the cheetah and has learned to pay closer attention to the body language of the animals she films.

“The very reason we, and certainly I, love wildlife is because they run on instinct,” Shannon says. “She was simply doing what she was designed to do.”

Despite her increased vigilance, getting up close and personal with some of the world’s most exotic wild animals is bound to result in the odd painful moment. The knuckle on her shutter finger will never be the same after a particularly nasty nip from a monitor lizard, a nice accompaniment to her collection of snakebites. She has found herself in the crosshairs of charging lions and elephants, has fought off burrowing worms and stomach-eating bacteria, and has even been chomped on the face by, of all things, a pet dog.

Shannon’s best advice for interacting with the potentially dangerous creatures (and dogs) she films is to remain composed and exude positivity.

“Energy has a huge role to play, and I am naturally calm and positive when in the presence of animals,” she explains. “Negative energy such as frustration, impatience and fear are readily sensed by most animals, which in turn can have a negative effect on their behaviour.”

For someone with Shannon’s passion for wildlife, these battle wounds serve as wake-up calls rather than deterrents.

Having worked as a graphic designer and art consultant before slowly shifting her focus toward photography, Shannon made the fairly rapid decision to move to South Africa and start afresh as a freelancer specialising in wildlife. Building a profile and learning to live without a regular salary was difficult at first, and still presents its challenges. However, more than a decade later, the gutsy move has paid massive dividends, with Shannon having established herself as a leading wildlife photographer before transitioning into cinematography. She has now worked with producers including National Geographic and Disney Nature, with plenty more projects on the boil.

“Freelancing allows me the variety I crave,” she says. “I love travelling to new places and photographing new species. I couldn’t imagine having to only work in the one place any more.”

Shannon estimates that, to this point, her freelance work has taken her to around 25 different countries. One of her most recent trips, an expedition to the Arctic, saw her filming polar bears, whales and walruses in such extreme cold that she lost feeling in her hands mid-shoot. Just a few months earlier she’d been baking under the Botswanan sun, unable to find respite from the heat, which ranged from 45ºC during the day to a comparatively chilly 38ºC at night.

“It feels like your brain is cooking in your head and it can be hard to concentrate for long periods,” she recalls. “Constantly wetting my clothes and hair helps, but it’s one of those situations I have to suck up and remember how lucky I am to get to do this.”

The reward for all this hardship? For an animal lover and conservation crusader like Shannon, the payoff is intangible.

She fondly recalls “seeing a baby elephant learn to drink through its trunk for the first time instead of kneeling down and drinking with its mouth. It was amazing to see and so precious when I saw that ‘ah ha’ moment for him. He was incredibly proud.” Equally rewarding was the time a family of baboons in Zimbabwe accepted her into their circle, allowing their young to climb over her.

But, fittingly, Shannon’s all-time career highlight came courtesy of the king of the jungle.

“Hearing a male lion roar for the first time with him standing only a metre or two from me is something I’ll never forget. I teared up, and it’s still my absolute favourite sound to this day. It literally vibrates through your chest.”

In a moment like that, all the dehydration, flesh-eating bacteria and cheetah maulings in the world pale into insignificance.

Words Nick Johns-Wickberg

Photos Shannon Wild

Tags: African wildlife photography, Shannon Wild, south africa, wildlife photography

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