Ami Vitale: “The future is in our hands.”

The American photojournalist on tragic moments, panda costumes and bringing animals back from extinction
By Graeme Green
Ami Vitale is a photojournalist for National Geographic. Having started out covering conflicts in Kosovo, Kashmir and Palestine, she’s since focused on wildlife and conservation stories, including the death of Sudan, the world’s last Northern White Rhino. She’s won five World Press Photo awards.

What was it that first made you want to go out into the world to find and tell stories?

It began from being a very painfully shy, introverted child who was really afraid of people and afraid of this world. Something about picking up the camera gave me this hidden ‘superpower’. It took the attention away from me and allowed me to focus on others. I always had this sense of curiosity, but I was just too afraid.

I’m grateful for discovering photography and the camera, because it really is what empowered me. As I started to get more and more into storytelling and realizing the power of sharing these stories and visual storytelling, I realised I could amplify other people’s voices. That’s a beautiful thing to discover.

Photo by Ami Vitale

Does photography need to have purpose and meaning for you?

Absolutely. It’s wonderful to look at a beautiful image but it has to have meaning.

Photography is the greatest communicator. It transcends country and culture and religion, and can be this thing that connect all of us. I feel like we have the ability, if we want to, to see the things that divide us. But if you dig a little bit and you also look for the things that connect us and remind us of our shared humanity, they’re also there. Those are the stories I seek.

You were present at the death of Sudan, the last northern white rhino in Kenya. Your photo was recently voted the most popular photo of the last decade by National Geographic readers. What impact did that moment have on you?

I’m still trying to process it because it had a huge impact on me. It did exactly what I hoped for. I think it woke people up. What was so heart-breaking is that you recognize when you look at the picture that human beings are both the protectors and the destroyers. You realize that this isn’t just the death of this ancient, gentle hulking creature – it’s the death of all of us. We are witnessing it on our watch.

Photo by Ami Vitale

When I look at that picture and when I think about that moment, I feel this deep sense of guilt too, because you recognize we’re all part of the problem. We can also be part of the solution, but right now we are all part of this problem. That moment with just one animal is symbolic of what we’re doing to this planet and every living creature on it, including humanity.

How do you weigh up whether it’s ok to take photos at sensitive moments like that?

I don’t just parachute into places. I’ve been working on that story for 10 years, and really working with the community there and other communities in northern Kenya to create awareness to help get them funding to do their important work, so it wasn’t like I just showed up there.

These communities, these people, these animals even knew who I was. Sudan recognized me because I spent a long time being with them and going back to tell their story over and over again, in this desperate appeal to people to just say, “The future is in our hands. It is up to us. We can’t just sit idly by and think somebody else is going to take care of this problem.”

We’re witnessing a level of destruction that we have never seen. We are in the sixth extinction event. This time it’s purely driven by mankind. That is so overwhelming to think about. But I don’t want people to get overwhelmed. I want that to inspire them to look out into this world and realize it is not too late.

I understand there’s a next chapter in Sudan’s story with some cutting-edge science.

It is a beautiful twist of fate. The story that was so heart-breaking that I could barely talk about it without weeping, the story that almost destroyed me, has magically become a story of hope. It looks like this animal could maybe be brought back from extinction.

There is an international consortium of scientists and conservationists – the Leibniz Institute For Zoo and Wildlife Research, the Avantea lab in Italy, Ol Pejeta Conservancy, the Kenya Wildlife Service, and the Safari park Dvůr Králové from the Czech Republic – all working together to get the eggs from the two last female northern white rhinos.

They harvest the immature egg cells and then they have to jump on a plane and, within 24 hours, transport them to this laboratory in Italy. They incubate them, wait for them to mature, and fertilize them from the frozen semen of those last males that are no longer alive. They actually already created two viable embryos, which are frozen in liquid nitrogen.

The plan now is to transfer them into surrogate southern white rhinos in the near-future. The incubation period that it would actually take to create a baby is a few years off, but the hope is that they could actually create babies that would be living together with the last two female northern white rhinos.

Photo by Ami Vitale

It’s ‘brave new world’ science, isn’t it?

This science is really important. It’s not just science that will be used on the northern white rhinos. It has the possibility of saving so many other species.

It’s terrible exciting because it’s never been done. There’s a comprehensive, ethical assessment being carried out by the University of Padova.

Another species you’ve spent time photographing is pandas, which required you to wear a panda suit. Is it hard to rock a panda suit?

It is hard to rock a panda suit, particularly when it is scented particularly with panda urine. But that story really surprised me. We’ve turned pandas into goofy, cartoonish characters. That’s not how they are at all. It’s a creature that’s elusive and quiet and solitary.

They’ve been on this planet for millions of years but they were only discovered by humanity… The first ones were shot in 1927 and the first ones were captured alive in 1936, so not that long ago.

Photo by Ami Vitale

How did they remain that elusive, that unknown to humanity? They would just hide out in this thick bamboo forest, away from humanity, and they adapted their diet, from being a carnivorous predator, to a diet that’s 99 per cent bamboo. They are really solitary. They only come for breeding once every year and they only have 24 to 72 hours to get together to breed.

When we think about China, we don’t think about it being this particularly environmentally conscious country. But they took one of the most endangered animals on the planet and, one month after we published the story, they were performing a minor miracle. China’s one of the few countries in the world where forest coverage is growing. They’re taking existing habitat and protecting it, and reforesting other areas and connecting existing corridors for pandas and a whole host of other species.

Photo by Ami Vitale

From poaching and loss of habitat to climate change, there’s a lot to be concerned about currently. The idea that keeps coming from photographers and conservationists I’m talking to for the New Big 5 project is that you can either do something or you can do nothing. Do you agree with that idea?

A hundred percent. By doing something, it gives you so much energy and you start to realize how much you can do. The power of one individual is real. I see it over and over in these stories. On a personal level, it helps all of us to get through that deep despair.

I actually don’t watch television any more. I just get out and engage with people instead. That gives me a different view of this world.

It is important to understand what’s happening. Climate change is real. We are facing incredible rates of extinction all around us. But if you’re only guided by that, it’s not going to get you out of bed every day. We have to find other ways to inspire us to get out and do something. There is so much that we can be doing. To just sit and do nothing is the worst possible choice.

Photos by Ami Vitale.

Ami Vitale’s website:

The Secret Lives Of Pandas by Ami Vitale is out now, published by Hardie Grant: Panda Love.

Ami is a founding member of Ripple Effect Images, an organization of female photographers, writers, filmmakers and scientists:

Follow Ami Vitale on Instagram: @amivitale.

Graeme Green is a photographer and journalist:

Listen to the Ami Vitale NEW BIG 5 PODCAST here.

Please SHARE this interview.

NOTE: The best way to solve the crises facing the planet and its wildlife is by having open, honest, respectful conversations and hearing diverse voices from around the world. The New Big 5 project does not necessarily support or agree with every opinion or idea expressed by photographers, conservationists or organisations featured on the New Big 5 website. The many different wildlife charities, photographers, film-makers and conservationists we’ve collaborated with also do not necessarily support or agree with every idea or opinion expressed by other people or organisations on the website. It’s ok to disagree and debate. But we hope the opinions and ideas can inspire people, make people think, and be part of the conversation to help our planet and the animals that live on it.

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