American photographer and Nikon Ambassador Ami Vitale doesn’t consider herself a nature photographer.
“I use nature as the foil but it’s about us, our future, and where we are going,” says Vitale, who began her career covering brutal global conflicts.
Last summer, her incredible “Pandas Get to Know Their Wild Side,” photo story in the August 2016 issue of National Geographic was a global sensation. Vitale also won a 2017 World Press Photo Award for the project.
The piece documents experimental and largely successful efforts by Chinese bear keepers at the Hetaoping Wolong Panda Center to train cubs born in captivity how to survive in the wilderness.
China is working hard – with less than 2,000 giant pandas currently living in the wild – to protect the bears within its borders.
Behind the scenes, Vitale said the biggest challenge was getting access to the animals.
“With only a few thousand in the world, the Chinese treat it as a national symbol and each panda is closely guarded and watched. They are multi-million dollar bears that everyone treats with kid gloves, and they are highly vulnerable. Getting close without interfering with their biology and conservation, in a way that is acceptable to its very protective minders, was challenging,” she told World Press Photo.
The second biggest challenge was the patience required to photograph the bears and make unique images of one of the most photographed animals in the world.
Telling the story of the pandas and their fate isn’t just about the pandas, but about every connected thing on earth, Vitale said, adding that she’s come to realize that even for wildlife and nature stories, she can bring that same sensibility into the images.
“Here is the thing that really struck me. Everything is connected to nature. Even though these issues I was covering were issues of conflict and security, every one of those issues ended up being dependent on nature for its outcomes,” Vitale says.
Vitale brought the same attention and sensitivity to conflict and security to her stunning images and story in the May 2017 National Geographic dispatch about Kenyan Samburu warriors who are now protecting the elephants they once feared.
“This is the biggest story out there. It’s not really about animals. It’s really about us,” Vitale says. “I’m not a nature photographer. I’ve focused on continuing to tell the story of what connects us all but now I am using the lens of nature; Our home.”
Vitale recently joined Ripple Effect Images, an organization of renowned female scientists, writers, photographers and filmmakers. Working together, the women create “powerful and persuasive stories that shed light on the hardships women in developing countries face and the programs that can help them,” according to Vitale’s website. She is also on the Photojournalism Advisory Council for the Alexia Foundation, an organization dedicated to helping photojournalists give voice to those who go unheard, foster understanding and expose social injustice.
“Annie Griffiths invited me to be one of the founding members of Ripple,” Vitale says. “It was completely in line with the work I was already covering. I had been making a film about climate change and adaptation and I see this as the most important story of our time.”
In February 2017, Vitale reported to World Press Photo that the giant panda was taken off the endangered species list one month after publishing the story.
In fact, the International Union for Conservation of Nature classified China’s wild panda population as “vulnerable” instead of “endangered” species. The population was reported to have increased to 1,864 in 2014 from 1,596 in 2004, with credit given to Chinese agencies enforcing poaching bans and expanding forest reserves.
The report warned, however, that despite better protection, climate change is predicted to wipe out more than 35% of the panda’s natural bamboo habitat in the next 80 years. Pandas must eat 12-38kg of bamboo every day to meet their energy needs.
In a statement to the Associated Press, China’s State Forestry Administration disputed the classification change because the pandas struggle to reproduce and their habitats remain splintered by human intervention. Still, the success of China’s effort is encouraging.
“We need to hear these success stories to motivate and inspire us to do more,” Vitale says.