One of the most overused phrases in our social media, influencer laden lives has become “I am a storyteller”. If you ask people who identify themselves as a storyteller, what stories they tell, what their history is and how their stories have shaped people’s lives, they likely would struggle to tell you. Our latest #WomenInspingWomen subject, Ami Vitale is a storyteller and she doesn’t share just her own perspective. The National Geographic photographer lives and breathes her subjects lives and takes pictures that tell a story without words. Whether it was the war-torn streets in Afghanistan or the savannahs of Kenya, Ami Vitale shares the lives of the people and the endangered animals that she meets. Her perspective comes from a place of education and passion, not apathy.
We were lucky to hear her story and the stories that she is so passionate about. The award-winning photographer’s short film, Shaba is winning rave reviews. The story isn’t just about one orphaned elephant. It’s about the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary. It’s about the Samburu women, the elephant-keepers who care for Shaba. Finally, it’s about how important it is to for indigenous people and local government’s to be involved in the protection of a species that many of us will never see in the wild.
Kenya is a success story. Ami Vitale shares what the real issue is and how we can do our part as tourists:
“There is no hunting allowed in Kenya. Interestingly, Shaba was the only elephant that ever came in because of poaching. Kenya has done such an amazing job. The biggest threat for elephants in Kenya right now is climate change,” she continues, “It is creating more cases of human/wildlife interaction and conflict. But the truth of the matter is South Africa does host hunting, their laws are very different. If people were better educated about how different and how much of an impact it makes when a government takes a firm stance against it, it helps. If we as tourists, we go and support those economies that are doing that, it matters.”
You moved from covering wars and human drama to sharing the stories of endangered wildlife. Why did you make the switch and use your own voice for change?
I made the switch to human’s connection to the wild, not just endangered wildlife. I don’t just talk about wildlife and I don’t just talk about people – I talk about this intersection. It was the piece that I was missing for so long. Interestingly, I covered Afghanistan and my heart is weeping, I’m filled with despair and I see a deep connection between all of this. All of these wars across the planet are deeply connected to our natural world. If we don’t start paying attention, we are going to have more wars and more conflict.
My message is that the environment has always been, and will always be, a social justice issue. We are all connected to one another and the outcome to every single story of humanity is always dependent on nature. We must begin to see our world as part of the natural world. Our fates are linked. Losing one part of nature is a loss for all of nature. Without rhinos, elephants and other wildlife we suffer more than just the loss of ecosystem health. We suffer a loss of imagination, a loss of wonder, a loss of beautiful possibilities.
What happens next is in all of our hands. Nature is resilient if we give it a chance – if we give it our time. We all have the capacity to engage and use our voices to make a difference. The messenger matters just as much as the message itself. Each of us will be a much more powerful voice when speaking to the people in our lives.
There are only two northern white rhinos left in the world. Poachers are not the only issue though; it is also people who hunt big game. Why are these hunts still legal, and what can we do to put an end to them?
When you take a keystone species out, everything starts to crumble. That is part of the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary story. There were two stories that helped me understand these great connections. One was the story of the northern white rhino which began in 2009. I realized that when I met these rhinos and looked at this ancient creature that had been roaming the planet for perhaps millions of years. When you look at them, you realize how pre-historic they are. On that day I met them, there were only eight of them alive on the planet – all in zoos. There was something that happened when I met them that just captured my heart and made me stop in my tracks.
They were the species that helped me understand that I need to start focusing on the bigger picture; not just the story of humanity, poverty, wars and all of these other issues that I had been focusing on. I realized that you can’t talk about poverty, conflict and all of these human issues without looking at what we are doing. All of these keystone species help us have a healthy eco-system. They lead us down this path of limited resources; then the fighting begins and you start to understand that it’s all connected. You can’t talk about one without the other. We, as journalists have been doing a huge disservice by not making these bigger connections.
The issues regarding big game hunts and poachers are very complicated issues. The first thing that I want to say is that it’s not just the poaching and big game hunters. I wish that I could blame the situation on them. It’s not so simple. Habitat loss is the single biggest threat to all of us. That means more developments. It means fracturing up these huge ecosystems so that wildlife doesn’t have any place to go. That’s why we are seeing the silent extinction of giraffes, elephants and rhinos. We are not giving wildlife the space that they need to thrive and survive.
With respect to big game hunting – hundreds of years ago, there were enough species. I live in Montana and there is hunting here. Hunters actually contribute to conservation believe it or not. This doesn’t apply with endangered and threatened species; but there are species like deer and elk where there are huge numbers. There are no longer huge numbers of elephants, giraffes and rhinos and they are all deeply threatened right now.
I’d like to shine a quick light on giraffes. They have been categorized as one species, but when scientists looked at them, there are several sub-species of giraffes. Some of the sub-species have less then 600 of them alive. For example, the West African giraffe was down to 49 left on the planet. We have to applaud the government of Niger, this impoverished place. They asked communities to protect these animals. Today, there is over 600 of them. I went and did a story. People there can barely feed their children. There is a militant movement going on. There are lots of struggles, but they are protecting these giraffes and helping them to survive.
My point in telling you all of this is that it isn’t just the big hunters, but certainly we do not have the ability to hunt species that are on the brink of extinction. If people want to hunt, go to Montana there are plenty of species that you can hunt. I have neighbours that hunt and eat the animals. I would argue that they are more sustainable. They don’t buy their meat from the supermarket and it’s probably better for the environment. It’s hard for people living in urban environments to understand all of the issues – it’s complex and no place is the same.
The policies in South Africa and Botswana are very different than Kenya or Montana. We need to not draw these broad strokes about everything. Every place is unique, the landscape is different and the outcome is different for each species. I’m not a scientist – I’m just a storyteller – so I want to put this all-in brackets. You have to go to the scientists in each place and talk to them because it’s dramatically shifting each day. The biggest issues today is climate change and habit loss.
I know a lot of big game hunters. It’s complicated. They argue that their money is going back into the economy and helping protect the species. To me, there are bigger issues and bigger threats to shine a light on. My window into all of this is that I believe that the best protectors of the landscapes are the indigenous communities who need our support like the stories about Reteti and the stories about the northern white rhino. There is a beautiful story there.
I started that story covering the end of a species and now there is a project called “The Bio Rescue Project” and they have created 12 embryos already. They have surrogates ready and it looks like by the end of this year that they are going to try to create a baby northern white rhino. People argue about putting the money and resources into it. The truth is southern white rhinos went through this bottleneck already where they had less than 50 left. They had less genetic diversity and they were able to save that species and now there are over 20,000 of them. It’s not impossible, but the truth is now our biggest threat is habitat. We have to protect them.
What challenges do female photojournalists face in the field when covering an extreme topic?
For any woman, in the world, the first thing that you are going to think about is your safety. I thought of this recently, because there are certain things that men just don’t have to think about when they go out into the world. With every single thing that I do, the first thing that I have to think about is am I going to be raped? Am I going to be endangered? Am I going to endanger somebody else by being there? I have to think of a whole host of questions that I don’t think even enters a man’s mind.
I look out into the world and think about if it’s about to get dark. I always chose to photograph in the early mornings because I knew that the sun was coming up, I wouldn’t have to worry about sunset when it’s about to get dark and maybe I’d be stuck out in a place. I had to think about if I had to bring a security person with me if it was dangerous to be there.
Men have a whole host of other things that they have to think about. As women, there are a many things that we must think about like: What am I wearing? Do I have the blessings of all of the leaders and community for the place that I am going? Do they know who I am? I have to spend a lot of time explaining to the leaders what this is about because immediately, people think that it’s strange to see a woman alone working in different landscapes.
Tell us about some of the most dangerous situations that you were in and how you got out of them?
There are so many different kinds of danger. There is covering war and your safety. I’ve been shot at and in the middle of attacks. I’ve been in places like Kandahar in Afghanistan where I’ve felt very threatened. That is the danger where that’s the first thing that you think about, but there are other kinds of danger. There is working with wildlife which is incredibly dangerous. I’ve been charged by an elephant. When I was charged by an elephant, the funny thing was that I was also charged by the people who I was close to. Everybody went running and I got run over by the man who was supposed to be the protector. I actually don’t think about the danger. I do think about how to be smart when I go out into the world and what the dangers are.
Then, there is physical danger like getting malaria and getting sick from other illnesses. What I do think about is being thoughtful and responsible to the people whose stories I’m telling. Am I putting them in danger? That is the single most important thing. I think about why am I doing this story? Is it endangering somebody else? I’ve learned a lot in my career. It takes time to learn about a place and the people or the animals and that if you are going to tell a story, you need to spend years on it.
Traditionally, we were asked to parachute into places, spend a few days, a week or maybe a couple of weeks, take some pictures and leave. It doesn’t do justice to the people and the stories that I am telling. You need time to truly understand one another, gain people’s trust, get the access to understand what the story really is. That is the trajectory of my life, where I realized, pretty early on, that if I’m going to tell a story, I need to commit to it. Really commit to it and even if it’s in your backyard. It can be 10,000 miles away and it can be 2 miles away. You need to invest in people and community, have that depth and tell an authentic kind of story from a multitude of perspectives. Otherwise, you are only going to have a single-person perspective and that leads to imbalance and not telling the whole story.