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World-renowned wildlife photographer Suzi Eszterhas has photographed jaguars in Brazil, lemurs in Madagascar and wombats in Tasmania. She’s swum with humpback whales in Tonga and hand-raised and released an orphaned serval kitten in Kenya.

Her greatest adventure, though, is always the one still to come.

She’s pursuing her life’s mission, one of the few women making a living in the male-dominated field of wildlife photography.

Admittedly stubborn and focused, she’s known since her childhood in Marin County that her love of all animals, wild and domestic, would lead to a career in photography.

A Petaluma resident when she isn’t traveling around the world to photograph wild animals in their native environments, Eszterhas, 41, can barely keep up with her own passions.

She’s outlined 72 future projects, “some I have dreamed about my whole life,” including an upcoming trip to Botswana and South Africa to photograph mobs of meerkats.

As an award-winning photographer and dedicated conservationist who has worked with several rescue projects, she knows there’s never a shortage of stories and subjects to share.

“It’s the endless thing about my job that I love,” Eszterhas said.

Her compelling work can be found in more than 100 feature and cover stories in magazines like National Geographic Kids, Smithsonian, BBC Wildlife, Popular Photography, Audubon and her childhood favorite, Ranger Rick.

Her photo of a lone Adelie penguin atop an iceberg in Antarctica was featured on the cover of a 2007 Time magazine double issue on global warming.

Eszterhas specializes in chronicling newborn animals and family life in the wild, sometimes spending weeks or months gaining the trust of mothers by quietly blending into their environment.

“If you do anything to violate their trust, it’s incredibly hard to get it back,” she said.

She researches her subjects before traveling to points across the globe ­— she’s photographed wildlife on all seven continents — focusing on her safety and that of her subjects.

Understanding behaviors, and watching for them, are paramount to her work.

A yawning lion can mean the cat “is pretty relaxed or sleepy or content and fat from a big meal,” Eszterhas said. A yawning bear, however, can be expressing stress, “an indicator he may charge.”

Knowledge and respect are critical. “You have to respect their space and their behavior,” she said. “If you let your guard down, it’s really your own fault.”

A full-time wildlife photographer for the past 15 years, Eszterhas has an edited portfolio of some 38,000 images from the “millions” she’s taken. Today she spends three or four months in the field, down from the 10 months earlier in her career.

Eszterhas is the author of 13 children’s books, including three on wildlife rescue centers. Her latest, “Baby Animals Playing,” will be released this month. She hopes her Safari Nursery Art line will inspire even the youngest children to develop a love of animals.

She achieves her shots with great patience and dogged determination, doing what’s necessary to wait for just the right moment. She’s hidden in blinds (and urinated in bottles), not moving for hours while waiting to connect with her subjects for the ultimate photo.

“I know when it’s happening, as I’m hitting the shutter,” she said.

She strives to take photos that convey the intimacy, innocence and vulnerability of wildlife, particularly between mothers and babies.

Her vast portfolio offers a glimpse into a wild kingdom few could ever imagine witnessing: a mountain gorilla cuddling her 5-month-old twins in Rwanda, a young elephant calf keeping stride with his mother in Kenya, a mother Bengal tiger with her month-old cubs in a den in India, an infant Proboscis monkey grabbing its mother’s long nose in Malaysia, a mother giraffe reaching down to nuzzle her newborn calf in Tanzania.

Eszterhas hopes to bring “beauty and love to the rest of the world through my imagery, and evoke more love,” she said. She’s hopeful those viewing her work are “inspired and empowered to do something to help the earth and its creatures.”

Eszterhas has journeyed to preserves and remote areas with conservationists, researchers and on her own, often hiring local guides familiar with the region. She typically carries a tripod and packs long lenses and cameras on her back, with gear weighing from 20 to 37 pounds.

Despite occasional challenges, Eszterhas loves her work, is inspired regularly and acknowledges the $50,000 of credit card debt she accrued for equipment and travel expenses earlier in her career was worth every penny.

She encourages teenage girls to consider careers in photography and leads annual workshops for them to experience the field of wildlife photography. Eszterhas also hosts photo tours for the public to exotic locations, sharing her best practices and appreciation for wildlife.

Her professional work includes photographing numerous vulnerable and endangered species, some of them critically endangered. Photos published in several magazines help tell the story of a rehabilitation center in Vietnam working to save the world’s only scaly mammal, the pangolin, reportedly the most illegally traded wild mammal on the planet, both for its meat as a delicacy and for its keratin scales as medicinal ingredients.

Eszterhas has worked with a rescue group in Sumatra that’s trying to save orangutans facing extinction as a result of palm oil farming, habitat loss and corruption. She also shadowed an anti-poaching team for a few weeks, taking haunting images — and faced a death threat placed on the group.

“This is the reason why I help raise money and awareness,” she said. “These days, wildlife issues are intense.”

Her powerful photographs emphasize the perils faced by wildlife throughout the world. Eszterhas is a conservationist, patron and advocate for several groups, showcasing their efforts through her photography.

“There’s a big conservation component to what I do,” she said.

Eszterhas has a deep appreciation for those involved in rescue work, often for little thanks or recognition. “People are doing work like this all over the world,” she said.

Her own work is hardly glamorous. Gutsy, perhaps: she knows there are risks to her job, some that can’t be avoided. She often travels to remote locales, some in areas of political or cultural unrest.

“Some of it just comes down to luck,” she said. “I have been extraordinarily lucky. I’ve had some close calls.”

She resisted a kidnap attempt that left her traumatized but undaunted; encountered a spitting cobra coiled on her desk in Kenya; suffered a tick lodged deep in a nostril followed two days later by a beetle in the other nostril; and was chased by a green mamba, one of the world’s most venomous snakes.

She once unknowingly sat atop a termite nest while climbing a tree to photograph sloths, endured a fungal infection after bathing in dirty water, had insects lay eggs on her feet and was falsely accused of poaching and “nearly arrested for it and other things.”

Her efforts result in moving documentation of life in the wild; often joyous, sometimes harrowing, like witnessing the grief of a mother cheetah that lost her five cubs within a few months of their birth, an example of the high mortality rate of the species.

“It’s demoralizing losing so many species,” Eszterhas said. “I try to remind myself what we do have. It’s not endless, but it’s vast.”

For more information, or to see Suzi Eszterhas’ work or upcoming tours, visit suzieszterhas.com

Contact Towns Correspondent Dianne Reber Hart at sonomatowns@gmail.com

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