A decade ago, a group of endangered Rothschild’s giraffes was relocated to a remote lakeside peninsula in Kenya. But in recent years, due to rising water levels, the peninsula became an island, trapping the giraffes. In 2020, a team of conservationists set up a daring rescue—one that wildlife photographer Ami Vitale traveled to document. This is her tale.
It sounds like the start of a bad joke: How do you move eight giraffes—including a newborn calf—off an island in Africa’s Western Rift Valley? Answer: It isn’t easy, and it involves a boat, blindfolds, and earmuffs. We follow conservationist David O’Connor on an epic (and awkward) journey to save these endangered animals.
Listen to the podcast here.
Ami was interviewed in May by Toronto Film Magazine about her filmmaking and her experience making Shaba.
In the mountains of northern Kenya, a Samburu community is doing something that has never been done before. They’ve built a sanctuary for orphaned elephants to try to rehabilitate them back to the wild. The project is not just changing local attitudes about elephants, it’s changing attitudes about women too because the secret to Reteti’s success is all because of the special bond between a group of local women keepers and one special elephant named Shaba.
Reteti Elephant Sanctuary is the first-ever indigenous community-owned and run sanctuary in all of Africa, where rescued orphaned elephants are looked after by local keepers from the Samburu community. They are rehabilitated and raised and then reintroduced back into the wild. The sanctuary is empowering young Samburu women to be the first-ever indigenous women elephant keepers in all of Africa. At first, the community didn’t think there was a place for women in the workplace. Now, the success of these women elephant keepers is unlocking new possibilities and setting a powerful example for young girls, hoping to pursue their dreams.
What’s happening there, without fanfare, is nothing less than the beginnings of a transformation in the way the Samburu people relate to wild animals. This oasis where orphans grow up, learning to be wild so that one day they can rejoin their herds, is as much about people as it is about elephants.
This is a personal story about a group of women and an elephant named Shaba who changed each other’s lives. This film is a powerful reminder that we are a part of a complex world created over millions of years, and the survival of all species is intertwined with our own.
Reteti began in partnership with Conservation International who provided critical operational support and work to scale the Reteti community-centered model to create lasting impacts worldwide. It was our pleasure to speak to the director of Shaba, Ami Vitale.
How did you start making films and what was the first film project you worked on?
I began as a writer and photographer working for international publications like National Geographic magazine, so my background was already in strong visual storytelling. When the DSLR cameras evolved to include HD video, I pushed myself to embrace these new tools and learn to make short films. While photography is an incredibly powerful medium, films allow us to amplify important voices and stories in other impactful ways. Film brings these stories to life by truly listening to one another’s stories. My first film, Bangladesh: A Climate Trap, documented the mass migration of people who are being impacted by climate change. Bangladesh faces a double threat: rising sea levels as a result of the melting ice caps and glaciers, and as the world warms, more extreme weather patterns. Monsoon rains in the region are concentrating into a shorter period, causing a cruel combination of more extreme floods and longer periods of drought. The poorest are the most affected by climate change but they are the least responsible for it. The country’s future, however, and the fate of its impoverished millions, will be determined not necessarily by rising sea levels, but by the behavior of its citizens, neighbors and outside powers. Whether it becomes one of the great human tragedies of our time or a model for the future depends on these choices. Right now Bangladesh appears far away, but our planet’s ecosystem is an intricate web and the lessons learned here are important for all of humanity.
What was the inspiration behind the making of your film?
For my next film, Shaba, I spent the last 6 years working with a Samburu community in northern Kenya who are rescuing orphaned elephants. What’s happening at the Reteti elephant sanctuary, is nothing less than the beginnings of a transformation. This oasis where orphans grow up, learning to be wild so that one day they can rejoin their herds, is a story that is as much about people as it is about elephants. They are doing something that has never been done before, building the first ever indigenous owned and run sanctuary for orphaned elephants to rehabilitate them back to the wild. The film focuses on the indigenous women elephant keepers who are changing not just how the Samburu relate to wildlife but also how people relate to one another.
What is the most challenging aspect of being an independent female filmmaker in the film industry?
It’s very difficult to get a foothold in the industry. Who you know matters and those doing the hiring end up excluding new talent. Perhaps it feels like a risk for them and so most of the opportunities are given to the same people who often happen to be men. I am working in the natural history space and most of my colleagues are all white men. Until our industry takes more chances to empower new voices, we will not have a multitude of perspectives.
How difficult is it to fund indie films?
In my experience, it is very challenging but I have been lucky and learned how to find people who believe in my projects. The challenge has been that I end up using so much time and energy away from the creative to find funding.
Please name three of your most favorite directors. How have they been influential in your work?
There are so many directors I admire but the ones that inspire me the most are the strong women directors who have carved a path in what can be an inhospitable industry. They have found ways to use their voices to create narratives that help us imagine a more equitable world. Their work is not just compelling and heartwarming but they use their crafts to create new narratives and reframe the old narratives.
Agnes Varda has always been a great inspiration. Her work resonates because she was also a photographer before she was a filmmaker. She had a photographer’s eye and paid very close attention to everything that was in frame. All of her films were social commentaries, addressing feminist issues. She filmed womens stories, lives and struggles and had a profound impact on the way I see the world. A journalist once wrote that “she was so far ahead of the world that she had to wait for it to catch up to her.”
Kirsten Johnson’s 30 years of making films and her deep connection to the people she films has resonated deeply with me. She shows the importance of authenticity and intimacy in making films. Her own trajectory from being a camerawoman to director and filmmaker has personally been very inspiring.
Maïmouna Doucouré uses her voice and art to ask difficult questions and empower women. She takes stories we may think we understand and turns them on their head. Her work challenges Western audiences to think about how when we objectify women, we also oppress them.
Why do you make films?
Films are an incredible tool for creating awareness and understanding, a tool to make sense of our commonalities in the world we share. After a decade of covering wars as a photojournalist, I realized that all the stories about people and the human condition were always connected to the natural world. In some cases, it was the scarcity of basic resources like water. In others, it was the changing climate and loss of fertile lands but always it was the demands placed on our ecosystem that drove conflict and human suffering. Today, I have become a filmmaker and my work is not just about people. It’s not just about wildlife either. It’s about how small and deeply interconnected our world is.
Ami was honored to have recently been featured on the program CBS Sunday Morning in the segment, “Travel photographers on capturing images close to home.“
During the pandemic, photographers who are used to working in exotic locations have been focusing on more local subject matter, opening up new avenues of creativity. Correspondent Rita Braver talks with Ami Vitale, whose work frequently appears in National Geographic magazine, and lifestyle photographer Gray Malin, about how the lockdown forced them both to reach a new understanding of their work – and their purpose.
Some of the work included in the broadcast included Cows in the Mist, Kamera and Kilifi Under the Umbrella, Lekupania and Giraffe, Yeye in the Mist, Well, Gujarat Montana Mane and Mountains, and The Last Goodbye.
My photograph of a Rothschild’s giraffe being rescued from Longicharo Island in western Kenya’s Lake Baringo has been honored with the First Place Award in the 2021 World Press Photo Nature Category. I am incredibly grateful to the people at Save Giraffes Now for giving me the opportunity to tell this story and to Kenya Wildlife Service and Ruko Conservancy for the hard work they do each and every day to restore this iconic species.
A HUGE congratulations to my fellow honorees in the contest and in the nature category Carlton Ward Jr., Jaime Culebras, Ezra Acayan, Jasper Doest & Luis Tato. You all are doing such powerful, inspiring work and I am humbled to be mentioned in the same sentence with you all.
In this photo, Pasaka, a younger Rothschild’s (Nubian) giraffe, is blindfolded and rescued from Longicharo Island, in western Kenya’s Lake Baringo, on a makeshift raft. Longicharo Island was once a peninsula, but rising water levels in Lake Baringo turned it into an island. Particularly heavy rainfall in 2019 caused further floods, stranding nine giraffes.
Rothschild’s giraffes are a subspecies of the northern giraffe, and are classified as endangered. The giraffe is the world’s tallest land mammal and the Rothschild’s giraffe is one of the loftiest subspecies, growing up to six meters in height.
The local community worked with conservationists from the Save Giraffes Now, Kenya Wildlife Service and Northern Rangelands Trust to build the barge and transport the marooned animals to a sanctuary in the Ruko conservancy on the shores of the lake. The rains had also led to an abundance of food on the island, so edible treats could not be used to entice the giraffes onto the barge.
Instead, the giraffes had to be tranquilized, which is a dangerous procedure given their anatomy, as they are at risk of choking on their own saliva, and changes in blood pressure can cause brain damage. A vet was on hand to immediately counteract the drug; the animals were then hooded and led onto the barge with guide ropes.
Learn more, including how to help at https://savegiraffesnow.org/
Award winning photographer Ami Vitale had travelled the world capturing today’s most compelling wildlife and environmental stories. Highly commended in this years’ Wildlife Photographer of the year’s People’s Choice Awards, Ami’s image The Last Goodbye portrays the bond between ranger and rhino. Join Ami in conversation with Alison Shean as we discover the incredible story behind this heart-breaking image.
The last two northern white rhinos on the planet are never alone. They are cared for 24-hours per day, seven days a week by devoted keepers. Some of them you may know from these posts like Zacharia Mutai, Joseph Wachira and James Mwenda but there are many others who have committed their lives to protecting these creatures.
These men spend more time with these rhinos than they do their own families. The bonds are deep and the keepers have a profound understanding of just how precious these last northern white rhinos are. These men have become some of the northern white rhinos closest friends and greatest advocates.
For the month of February, I am holding a special fine art print offering of all my photographs of northern white rhinos. 100% of the profits will be donated directly to the keepers at Ol Pejeta Conservancy so that they can continue on their mission of protecting and fighting for some of the world’s most vulnerable creatures. Show your support today by visiting amivitale.com/shop/giving-back
I am pleased to share that my photo, “Dancer” is a part of the exclusive new Athena Collection of scarves from InFocus Canada. The series features some of North America’s most outstanding female photographers. Beautiful photography, elegant fashionable scarves, limited first edition, support of charity, sustainably and ethically produced.
The photo is of a traditional dancer from Udaipur, India inside a haveli. When I saw her twirling inside the magnificent architecture of the Rajasthan state, I was struck by her poetry. She too is one of the most powerful storytellers. Her vocabulary is based on gestures, movement, and expression. My hope is that the photo becomes a symbol of all the love, color, richness, and stories we all share.
Each scarf is produced from a custom milled fabric made from 100% recycled plastic and diverts 3 bottles from the waste stream. They are soft and flowy and feel beautiful around your neck. Only 200 scarves have been produced in this print as part of a First Edition. All scarves are sustainably produced and are developed and manufactured employing the highest ethical production standards.
10% of the sale price of each of my ‘Dancer’ scarves is donated to the BioRescue Project, an international project aiming to save the northern white rhino from extinction by developing methods of assisted reproduction and stem cell research under the leadership of the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (Leibniz-IZW).
Purchase yours and see all the other available scarves from photographic luminaries Viktoria Haack, Michelle Valberg, Melissa Groo, Kristi Odom, Deanne Fitzmaurice and Clare Hodgetts at InFocus Canada.
I am excited to share this collaboration with the extraordinary artist Mantra, my wonderful friends at both Reteti Elephant Sanctuary, Sarara Camp and National Geographic, who conspired to make this wild dream into a reality! For many years, I have been using photography and filmmaking to tell the powerful stories of this community in northern Kenya. I wanted to use other mediums and think about ways to inspire creativity and pride around protecting our planet and the creatures we coexist with.
Reteti is the home of the first indigenous owned and run elephant sanctuary in Africa. Rock Paintings are the oldest form of storytelling. The Samburu elders living here guided us to a place that holds powerful symbolism. THIS ROCK was once used by elephant poachers as a place to hide but now, it is a place for community members, elders and visitors to gather. Mantra is the extraordinary artist who brought my two dimensional photo of a wild elephant from Namunyak to life using water based paints. My concept was to create something from nature that was meaningful and ephemeral. The painting will not last forever, but the memory of what has been created in this community will always live on.
Mantra is a self taught painter who has been painting in the streets since 2008. I was honored that he agreed to bring his genius talent and come to Namunyak for this wild idea. The team at Sarara Camp rallied together with friends at Reteti to build scaffolding and Mantra painted this photo free style in one day. Miracles can happen and we can all do more to make sure our children experience the beauty and wonder of this world.
I am working on another project and looking for financial support. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested in helping me with more initiatives to bring together stories, art and conservation. I believe these stories and art shape us and can change the way we see each other. I invite you to be a part of it.
I am honored to learn that the image of Joseph Wachira saying goodbye to Sudan, the last male northern white rhino on the planet, at Ol Pejeta Conservancy, has been nominated in the prestigious Natural History Museum’s People’s Choice Award. It is my hope that this nomination will bring attention to the incredible work of Jojo Wachira and all the people at Ol Pejeta and beyond who have selflessly committed their lives to helping protect and create awareness on the importance of wildlife and habit.
Voting ends this Tuesday, Feb. 2. Please vote now here.
My hope is that the award can bring attention to the plight of the northern white rhinos, all endangered wildlife and funding to organizations like the Biorescue Project, Safari Park Dvůr Králové & Ol Pejeta Conservancy. This moment can be a powerful catalyst to awareness of the reality of this mass extinction we are all facing.
Over the past year, scientists from the Biorescue Project have created 5 northern white rhino embryos which are awaiting implantation in a southern white rhino surrogate to try to rescue this species from extinction.
I am also making this photograph available as part of a flash print sale. 100% of net proceeds will be given directly to the keepers who care for Fatu and Najin, the last two northern white rhinos on the planet. Purchase your copy here.