Dedicating her life to creating meaningful images that raise awareness around the importance of wildlife conservation, the award-winning photographer delivers an urgent call to action
In 2018, Ami Vitale travelled to Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya to say goodbye to Sudan, the world’s last remaining male northern white rhino. Her sensitive photograph of Sudan’s final moments, with his keeper Joseph Wachira tenderly resting his forehead against the dying animal, was published in magazines, newspapers and on social media around the globe. It is an image that helped tell the world how close we are to losing rhinos, with a call for urgent action. It became a symbol for the damage we’re inflicting on the natural world. When working in China, Vitale says she even found her image had reached people there. In a country with a poor record on wildlife issues, where endangered animal products, including rhino horn, are sold, it helped communicate the severe threats to rhinos and other species.
In a world saturated with images, a photograph can still break through and make an impact, whether it’s generating donations and funding, or raising awareness and support for a cause. Another example is Vitale’s article, published in National Geographic, on the ‘silent extinction’ of Africa’s giraffes, which raised awareness about rapidly declining giraffe populations and habitat loss. Her work has galvanised people to take action and raised much-needed money for numerous conservation organisations and communities, including Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Reteti Elephant Sanctuary and the Giraffe Conservation Foundation. “That’s what gets me out of bed every single day,” says Vitale. “I love being out in the field and making beautiful images. But the thing that keeps me doing this is because I’ve seen the impact. It actually does work.”
“If we only frame the narrative that we’re on the path to the end of the world and there’s no turning back, that doesn’t motivate people, and it isn’t true. That’s not to pretend things aren’t bad. But we have to recognise that nature is incredibly resilient. If we work hard, nature can come back.”
For two decades, Vitale has created images that have made an impact. She began her career photographing in conflict zones, including Kosovo, Kashmir and Palestine, but gradually shifted towards wildlife, conservation and the environment. “I’d been focusing on human stories, social stories, issues of war, poverty, conflict,” Vitale explains. “I realised every story about humanity is a story about the natural world. It’s critical we all start to understand that and not think they’re separate.”
A photographer, filmmaker and journalist for National Geographic, Vitale is the winner of multiple World Press Photo awards for her work about endangered wildlife, ranging from Kenya’s giraffes, rhinos and elephants to giant pandas in China. She develops long-term relationships with places and communities, often exploring the connection between animals and the local people who care for them.
Conservation photography often shows stark and harrowing realities, from images of rhinos lying butchered for their horns to emaciated polar bears. Those photos are important, but Vitale also believes in showing the other side. “We need to find the stories where there’s hope,” she argues. “If we only frame the narrative that we’re on the path to the end of the world and there’s no turning back, that doesn’t motivate people, and it isn’t true. That’s not to pretend things aren’t bad. But we have to recognise that nature is incredibly resilient. If we work hard, nature can come back.”
To help that mission, Vitale has launched Prints for Nature, a major international print sale, featuring work by more than 85 global wildlife and nature photographers, with all proceeds donated to the international wildlife and conservation charity, Conservation International. “The idea began from an overwhelming sense of despair,” Vitale explains. “I was watching everything happen around the world and feeling a sense of helplessness. I’ve participated in group sales and I’ve always been doing fundraisers, and seen the success of them. It absolutely works. I felt it was a moment to gather the troops. A lot of these photographers sell prints in galleries for thousands of dollars. I was crying when I got the responses back, to see everyone rallying to this cause.”
The sale features work from several other photographers, including Michael Yamashita, Brent Stirton, Jasper Doest and Jimmy Chin. Importantly, Vitale worked to ensure women and non-western photographers from around the world were represented, from Kenya’s Usha Harish to India’s Sudhir Shivaram. “I’ve understood for a long time that it’s shocking how few indigenous people and how few women are in this sector of wildlife and conservation photography,” she explains.
Covid-19 has had a devastating impact on conservation and on people working on the ground to help protect wildlife. The sudden loss of tourism in national parks, reserves and wildlife areas across Africa, Asia, Latin America and elsewhere means lodges, camps and hotels have closed, with many staff sent home. Jobs as guides, managers, chefs, mechanics and waiters disappeared overnight.
With the loss of tourism revenues and a decrease in donations, money to support conservation efforts, such as ranger patrols, has been reduced. National parks have become more vulnerable to poaching, especially for bushmeat, as local people enter the park to hunt to eat or sell. Funds are urgently needed. “I’m hearing from people on the ground who tell me about the struggles they’re going through,” Vitale says. “Conservation’s hurting on so many levels. The wildlife is impacted but so are the people. The indigenous people living with the wildlife are the greatest protectors, and we have to give them a reason to stay involved in conservation. For so long, it was tourism dollars keeping people involved. People need to feed their families, their children.”
“The sense of urgency is real. We don’t have time to wait anymore. In the past people might’ve said, ‘The issue is too big. I don’t know how to help’, but we all have a role. Every single one of us.”
The pandemic only adds to the crisis facing the world’s wildlife. Our planet is in the midst of the world’s sixth mass extinction, the first caused by human activity, from poaching to deforestation to climate change. The next 10 years are critical, with millions of animal and plant species at risk of extinction, and scientists warning of biodiversity loss – a disaster not just for wildlife, but for humanity. “The sense of urgency is real,” says Vitale. “We don’t have time to wait anymore. In the past people might’ve said, ‘The issue is too big. I don’t know how to help’, but we all have a role. Every single one of us. We’re at this critical point. This is where my anxiety and despair came from. Policies matter. But if governments aren’t going to do it, we need to also support the institutions supporting conservation and communities on the ground. We all need to use our voices and get actively involved, whether it’s donating or getting more engaged in our backyards.”
Vitale has used her photos and platform to raise money and awareness for other causes, including Girls Who Click, an organisation that helps young women to enter the male-dominated field of conservation, andRipple Effect Images, a network of female photographers, writers, filmmakers and scientists highlighting issues women face in developing countries. She is an ambassador and advocate. For her, it’s about going beyond photography. “It’s about creativity and collaboration, and not limiting yourself to one thing,” she says. “I’m all about reinvention. We can all do so much more than we realise. I’d have never imagined this path that I’m on. I was a painfully shy, awkward person, really afraid of people for so long. I realised you can take the things you see as deficiencies, such as being gawky or introverted, and turn them into your superpower.” She adds, “My current thing is to take time to mentor. I’m also going to be training 40 new storytellers in communities I work with in northern Kenya. I’ll always take pictures – I can’t take that out of me – but I believe there’s so much more in me that I can do.”
Graeme Green is a British photographer and journalist whose work appears in international publications including the BBC, The Sunday Times, The Guardian, The Sunday Telegraph, Outdoor Photographer and New Internationalist, covering subjects ranging from conservation to human trafficking. He’s also used his photography to raise money for wildlife charities including African Parks, Panthera and Conservation International. Graeme is the founder of the New Big 5 project, an international wildlife conservation initiative supported by +150 photographers, conservationists and charities.