Behind the Lens: Ami Vitale on Capturing Beauty and Healing in Kenya

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Photo by © Sarah Isaacs

By Raye Mocioiu and Allie Murray

There is a special kind of healing that comes from fostering positive relationships with nature.

For Ami Vitale, there is also immense beauty in capturing those relationships in photos and films.

Healing and empowerment can often go hand in hand. The Samburu women in Kenya are pulling inspiration from one particularly powerful female: Shaba, a rescued elephant at Reteti Elephant Rescue. At just a year old, Shaba witnessed her mother being shot by poachers. Traumatized and alone, Shaba was taken into the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary, the first Indigenous-owned and run conservation initiative, focusing on the rescue, rehabilitation, and re-wilding of orphaned and abandoned elephants.

For Vitale, Shaba’s story gave her a refreshed look into the wild animal. “I couldn’t tell Reteti’s story without telling the story of Shaba. She taught them how to do their work,” she explained.

Shaba and Mary Lengees © Ami Vitale

Vitale’s work as a photographer and filmmaker has taken her to more than 100 countries where she witnessed firsthand heartbreak, but also the resilience people have. She has documented war zones, environmental stories, and wildlife in hopes that her work will empower others to make a difference.

Her passion stems from nature—striving to tell stories about the human condition and its connection to the natural world. She centers her work around the belief that you can’t talk about humanity without talking about nature.

Shaba was angry and aggressive when she arrived at the sanctuary, neither ready nor willing to accept the help of humans. It took a long time for Vitale and the women at Reteti to be accepted into Shaba’s herd and to build a trusting relationship with her—but when they finally did, something amazing happened.

Shaba took on the role of the mother. When new orphans would arrive, Shaba was drawn to their scent. She would be there to welcome them, care for them, and teach them how to be wild elephants. At a young age, she became a supportive figure for the newly rescued calves and helped Reteti nurse more than 30 elephants back to life.

In partnership with Reteti Elephant Sanctuary, Vitale released a short film titled Shaba, her second short film spotlighting the incredible work done by Reteti. The film became available for viewing online on July 2nd and is still available for viewing with a donation of $10 to Reteti at: amivitale.com/product/shaba. In celebration of World Elephant Day, the TreadRight Foundation’s travel partners, African Travel, Inc. (ATI) and Lion World Travel (LWT), both safari outfitters who partner with the sanctuary, hosted a virtual screening and live Q&A with Vitale. The funds from ticket sales went directly to Reteti, helping to purchase food, beds, milk, medical supplies, and more for the elephants in their care. ATI and LWT guests can visit the sanctuary on their Captivating Kenya and Experience Kenya safaris. They both offer a sustainable MAKE TRAVEL MATTER® Experience, where travellers are given a behind-the-scenes tour of the sanctuary and meet the women who are breaking barriers while taking care of these orphaned animals. Both brands will donate two bedtime blankets and three bottles of milk for every couple that books trips featuring Reteti in 2022.

Photos © Ami Vitale
“The elephants are helping to empower the women at Reteti. Women are transforming how they relate to the wild and the connections the next generation has with nature. It’s a reciprocal relationship, they are all helping and teaching each other,” Vitale said.

Elephants have intricate social structures and are said to value their families more than most animals, forming strong, intimate bonds that last a lifetime. Elephants are known to mourn the death of their loved ones, and mothers have been seen grieving for stillborn calves.

They travel in herds composed of females and led by an older, experienced matriarch.

Being the oldest, she has the knowledge that will ensure the herd’s survival in times of hardship and teach them how to protect themselves from danger.

At two years old, Shaba became the first matriarch of the Reteti herd.

In Shaba, Vitale shares that watching Shaba step into the role of matriarch was a source of empowerment for the Samburu women. The keepers shared that it was difficult to prove that they could rehabilitate these orphans and rewild them, and Shaba played a pivotal role in making that process a reality.

Through her work with the not-for-profit foundation, TreadRight, Vitale advocates for wildlife conservation and strives to tell stories of animals around the world through travel and photography.
The project is not just changing attitudes about elephants; it is changing attitudes about women too.

Tourism in Africa helps uplift the economy—now more than ever amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which has ultimately halted tourism worldwide. Through assistance from African Travel, Inc. and sister brand Lion World Travel, TreadRight supports more than 60 projects worldwide. They are also the architects behind MAKE TRAVEL MATTER® Experiences, which are conscious travel experiences available on Kenyan safaris, South Africa’s natural wonders, deserts of Namibia, and so much more. Proceeds from ATI and LWT’s visits directly benefit Reteti and help them continue their work, empowering elephants and women alike.

Ami Vitale in Kenya © Photo by Bryan Liscinsky

For the Samburu women, Reteti became a place where they could show the power women hold. The sanctuary is run by a team of women and men—made up of the first-ever women elephant keepers in Africa. Reteti’s founder Katie Rowe explained in a feature with Conservation International that women in Africa didn’t think there was a place for them in animal care. Reteti helped uplift them and make the space for them.

“Now, the success of these women elephant keepers is unlocking new possibilities, setting a powerful example for young girls hoping to pursue their dreams,” the article reads. “It’s also changing how the community relates to elephants. Schoolchildren who have never seen an elephant before or who were afraid of elephants visit Reteti and experience these elephants up close, and they realize they can grow up to be a veterinarian or elephant keeper.”

Empowerment also breeds innovation. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the powdered milk used by the sanctuary became difficult to keep in supply. One of the keepers discovered that they could use goat’s milk instead, and source it from a local, woman-owned farm. This way, the money used to feed the elephants would stay local and, in turn, support more women.

Shaba and her herd have since safely connected with a herd of wild elephants, but her legacy lives on at Reteti. Vitale shares that through Shaba and the keepers at Reteti, women are transforming how they relate to the wild and the connections the next generation will have with animals. As responsible travellers, we must respect the places we visit so that future generations can do the same. Like elephants, the connections we forge on our travels become the memories that stay with us long after the trip is over.

“Instead of checking a box off a bucket list, responsible travel is about the bonds we create,” says Vitale.

004 Global Heroes News
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Ami is an award-winning National Geographic photographer, filmmaker, and writer whose work in wildlife conservation aligns with TreadRight’s initiatives including their work with rhino, elephant, and leopard populations across Africa and India.

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