Ami Vitale – Connecting Mankind to Nature

March 8, 2020
  • Shweta Raman
  • 2020, woman empowerment, wildlife conservation, woman’s day, documentary filmmaker

“Saving nature is really about saving ourselves” says Ami Vitale

Ami Vitale grew up in Florida. She introduces her young self as “an introverted, shy, gawky young woman.” Then one day she picked up a camera—and had an epiphany.

“I realized that being behind the camera is really where I got my courage. The camera became my passport to engage with the world around me. It is an incredible tool for creating awareness and understanding across cultures and countries, a tool to make sense of our commonalities in the world we share.”

On this Women’s Day, we take the opportunity to celebrate women who show up, speak up and get things done. Ami uses the power of images and film to create impact in our society. She has travelled over a hundred countries and her photographs have been commissioned by nearly every international publication, as well as exhibited at museums and galleries around the world.  She is also a founding member of Ripple Effect Images, an organization of renowned female scientists, writers, photographers and filmmakers working together to create powerful and persuasive stories that shed light on the hardships women in developing countries face and the programs that can help them. Here is an article about an iconic woman whose journey will ignite a motivational spark in each one of us to step up and contribute to the conservation of this planet.

Ami Vitale began her career covering conflicts. Starting at age 26, she found herself in places such as Kosovo, Angola, Gaza, Afghanistan, and Kashmir. Her reason for going, as she told herself, was to document the brutality. She thought the most powerful stories were those driven by violence and destruction. The work was taking a toll on Ami as she went about living through dangerous real life conflicts.

“From Afghanistan and Gaza to Casamance and Angola, I set down this trail thinking that’s how you tell powerful stories to go to conflict after conflict.”

Ami even decided to keep information about her dangerous whereabouts and the work she was doing away from her parents as she didn’t want to worry her mother. When she launched her website, that’s when her mother found out, and called her in tears. After this, she decided to take some time apart. There is no taking away from the importance of recognizing and acting upon issues concerning human conflict and suffering. However, making that the centre of her universe led her down a black hole.

In 2009, Ami got a call from the Nature Conservancy. The US-based charity commissioned her to shoot conservation projects in eleven different places, from Alaska to Australia, over the course of nine months for a book and accompanying exhibition.

“I realized every single conflict I had covered was always connected to our resources. I started to realize that all these stories about people were always stories about the natural world, and vice versa.”

Slowly it became clear to her that journalists also have an obligation to illuminate the things that unite us as human beings. “If we choose to look for what divides us, we will find it. If we choose to look for what brings us together, we will find that too.”

These truths became personal guideposts when Ami met Sudan, a northern white rhinoceros and, eventually, the last male of his kind. She saw him for the first time way back in 2009 at the Dvůr Králové Zoo in the Czech Republic. She can remember every movement, every sound he made like it was just yesterday. His cage was snowed in, and she saw Sudan being crate trained—learning to walk into a giant box that would carry him almost 4,000 miles to his new home in the South to Kenya. He seemed wary of the crate, and moved cautiously. He took his time with every step, and for such a large creature, he was astoundingly gentle. Ami instantly knew that she was in the presence of an ancient being, (fossil records suggest that the lineage is over 50 million years old!), and felt humbled by the presence of this otherworldly Rhino who has roamed around much more of our world.

From hundreds of thousands of these species roaming the vast lands of Africa, Sudan remained one of only eight northern white rhinos left alive on the planet. Hunting and poaching had reduced their numbers to a mere 19000 by the 1980’s. Rhinos were hunted for their horns, which hold no real curative value. The belief that their horns could be used as medicine for every disease under the sun is baseless. Their horns are purely keratin, just like human fingernails.

When Ami met Sudan, the remaining white rhinos were in zoos. Although they were safe from human cruelty, breeding was a problem. Animal conservationists had devised a strategy to transport four of the rhinos to Kenya by air. The hope being that once in their inherent natural habitat, they would breed and repopulate in Africa.

To Ami, this strategy seemed like a fantasy. But, she realised that this was the only hope, and as desperate as it seemed, it was probably their last chance at saving the species. The zoos and conservationists in Africa worked hard to make this possible and on one cold December night, the four rhinos were airlifted from Dvůr Králové Zoo and brought to Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya.

A baseless and unresearched superstition about the magical powers of the rhino horn had somehow led to the destruction of an entire species. However, the fact that this forward-thinking group of people had joined forces to try and save this precious animal from extinction was heartening to say the least.

Nine years after the rhinos were brought to Kenya, she received a distressing call. Sudan was dying. He was 45, which is quite old for his species. He had had a good few last years in his native habitat protected by armed guards to keep him safe from hunters. Sudan was a celebrity in his own right and was affectionately called the “most eligible bachelor in the world.”

Sudan’s last moments were spent with his caretakers. The ones who had dedicated their lives to saving and protecting these animals. Ami felt like they were watching their own kind die and it was something she never wanted to experience again.

Today, there are only two female northern white rhinos left in the world. Efforts are being made with vitro fertilization to breed them.

The impact of a touching story of Jojo, a heartbroken caretaker who spent all his time protecting and tending to the Rhino’s, giving Sudhan, the final goodbye. Their heads leaning against each other, Sudhan and Jojo, sharing their last moments together. This very moment leaves a deeply haunting feeling on the mind.

The image shows a profound sadness and guilt which the entire human race today is a part of. What we can see in the image is not just the end of this beautiful species but the beginning of the end of humankind.

We see JoJo taking care of these animals and in a way it represents the best and worst of humanity. We are both the perpetrators and the protectors. It is in our hands to protect what’s left of nature. There is a poetic understanding in that image.

Capturing that moment moved Ami greatly, and she hopes she never has to experience it again, watching as one species after another moves towards extinction.

This is not just a story about Sudan; today we are witnessing extinction at an unnaturally high rate.

“Poaching is not slowing down. If the current trajectory of killing continues, it’s entirely possible that all species of rhinos will be functionally extinct within our lifetimes. These giants are part of a complex world created over millions of years, and their survival is intertwined with our own. Without rhinos and elephants and other wildlife, we suffer a loss of imagination, a loss of wonder, a loss of beautiful possibilities.” – says Ami Vitale

It is extremely important to build and spread awareness about the perils of human greed and the impact it has on our entire ecosystem. But what’s even more important is to bring to light the people who are making a difference. Ami believes that if we only tell stories about hopelessness and destruction, it isn’t always a catalyst for change. Rarely does despair spur people into action. It is crucial to remind us of what we can achieve and share stories of hope. Those are the stories that motivate action.

“All of us have a role to play. All of us can be voice and be engaged. This will be what saves us all.”- says Ami

We would like to take this opportunity to thank Ami Vitale for all the work that she has done. To us, she is the perfect embodiment of the Woman of 2020.

All images used in this article belong rightfully to their original owners.

© 2020 Ami Vitale, All Rights Reserved

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