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Looking Ahead: Ami Vitale’s Wildlife Conservation Work

Posted by on September 23, 2016 | Photographer Interviews

Catching Ami Vitale at home in Montana for a couple of days, she spoke to PDNedu about her recent trip to China—where she gave a talk at TEDxShanghai that was broadcast live all over Asia, Europe and the U.S.—and discussed her ongoing work with endangered animals.

The theme for the seventh TEDxShanghai conference was “Balance,” and it’s balance that the Nikon Ambassador and National Geographic photographer believes is necessary to help tell stories about the environment. She says: “I don’t want people to get the impression that I think the natural world is fine, but I do want to talk about what unites us as human beings and say that there are hopeful signs.” As an example, she mentions the Chinese government’s enactment of the ban on sales of ivory. “I want to discuss the challenges we face, but also focus on solutions and show success stories where conservation is working,” she explains. “This does more to motivate people, and it seemed to resonate with [the TEDx] audience.”

In 2013 she was offered the chance to photograph giant pandas being bred for release into the wild. “I was surprised to discover how much the Chinese government is doing to restore and protect forest coverage,” she says, pointing to the tens of billions of dollars being invested in creating and linking habitats. “It is one of the few countries in the world where forest coverage is growing. There is an increasing cultural awareness of the importance of preservation.” At the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda in Wolong National Nature Reserve, she set out to photograph these elusive creatures that sleep for two-thirds of the day and are hard to see, even in the smaller enclosures. Over the course of five visits, donning her own panda suit, she photographed a cub’s birth and the release of captive-born pandas into the wild.

Tourists watch as Li Feng cares for two month old giant panda cubs at the Bifengxia Giant Panda Breeding and Research Center in Sichuan Province August 29, 2015. Nearly 50 percent of giant pandas births are to twins, but the mothers can care for only one cub at a time so keepers in China have developed a careful process for swapping each baby so they are fed both by their mother and by hand. Baby pandas wean from their mothers between 8-9 months and a year old and generally stay with their mothers for 2 years. (Photo by Ami Vitale)

In the Bifengxia panda center nursery, keeper Li Feng handles a two-month-old cub. Photo © Ami Vitale/National Geographic (“Pandas Gone Wild,” August 2016)



Ye Ye, a 16-year-old giant panda, lounges in a wild enclosure at a conservation center in Wolong Nature Reserve. Photo © Ami Vitale/National Geographic (“Pandas Gone Wild,” August 2016)

This wasn’t Vitale’s first close encounter with an endangered species. Though she has worked as a photojournalist for the span of her career, she shifted her focus to cover environmental and wildlife stories in 2009. She learned that four of the world’s seven remaining northern white rhinoceroses were to be airlifted from a zoo in the Czech Republic back to Africa, in hopes of breeding them. But rhinos seemed to garner little interest from potential clients, with concerns that the story wouldn’t be visual enough. Vitale kept pushing, and says: “A good story is always harder than it looks.”

Vitale eventually cobbled together some funding and traveled with the rhinos to Ol Pejeta Conservancy in northern Kenya. Working with local organizations like Lewa Wildlife Conservancy and the Northern Rangelands Trust, Vitale has been photographing “Kenya’s Last Rhinos” each year since. She discovered that in Kenya, too, positive things are happening; with the support and involvement of local communities, there is a broadening understanding of the importance of saving the rhinos and fighting for their protection. Vitale calls the local communities  “unsung heroes” and says that in these small pockets of northern Kenya where communities have come together, no rhinos have been poached for two years.

Kamara is nuzzled by 18-month-old black rhino Kilifi, who he is raising, at Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya. Photo © Ami Vitale


Yusuf, a keeper at the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya sleeps among three baby rhinos. Photo © Ami Vitale

Vitale is delighted to be able to tell positive tales of renewal. One of her favorite tools is Instagram (@amivitale), which she uses to tell the stories of the organizations she works with. She’s also excited to use Nikon’s new KeyMission 360 camera as she continues to fulfill her goal of making people curious. In the coming months Vitale will travel to the Czech Republic, Georgia and Kenya.

See Vitale’s recent panda series for National Geographicon.natgeo.com/29PGByT

-Julie Grahame

Read the full Fall 2016 issue of PDNedu at digitalmag.pdnedu.com.