An Interview with Photographer Ami Vitale

Sudan the last male northern white rhino

Meet Nikon Ambassador and National Geographic Magazine photographer Ami Vitale. Already renowned for her award-winning international photography, Ami was recently nominated for The Natural History Museum’s prestigious People's Choice award, Wildlife Photographer of the Year. Her photograph, “The Last Goodbye," (shown above) is an image of Sudan, the last male northern white rhino left in the world, moments before he passed away at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in northern Kenya. 

University of Montana Wildlife Biology recently had the chance to catch up with Ami, who is based in Missoula. In telling the heartbreaking story of Sudan, she also left us with a sense of hope. Read the interview below.

UM Wildlife Biology: What did this picture mean to you when you made it? 

Ami Vitale: Sudan, the last living male Northern White Rhino left on this planet is comforted by Joseph Wachira, moments before he passed away in March, 2018. When I arrived, Sudan was surrounded by the people who had loved him and protected him. It was silent, except for the rain falling, a single bird scolding, and the muffled sorrow of his caretakers. Watching a creature die—one who is the last of its kind—is something I hope never to experience again. It felt like watching our own demise. It was a heartbreaking, profound moment. Jojo represents the best of what humanity can be when we choose to protect nature and wildlife. Seeing Sudan represented the worst of humanity. This giant hulking creature had survived as a species for millions of years but could not survive us, mankind.  

Sudan’s death could mean the extinction of his species, but if there is meaning in his passing, it’s that all hope is not lost. This can be our wake-up call.  My hope is that Sudan’s legacy serves as a catalyst to awaken humanity. There is a universal truth and we are in this intricate web together.  There is so much that connects us all to one another,  whether we understand it or not and the loss of any species has a ripple effect on other animals and on all of humanity too. The future of nature is the future of us.       

UM Wildlife Biology: What does it mean now?

Ami Vitale: My hope is that we, as a species, will finally understand that we need to see ourselves as part of nature and understand that saving nature is really about saving ourselves. We are witnessing extinction right now, on our watch. Poaching is not slowing down. If the current trajectory of killing continues, it’s entirely possible that all species of rhinos will be functionally extinct in the remainder of my life.  Removal of a keystone species has a huge effect on the ecosystem and impacts all of us. These giants are part of a complex world created over millions of years, and their survival is intertwined with our own.  

Today, there is a glimmer of hope for the northern white rhino. While there are only two females left in the world,  plans are in place to try in vitro fertilization to breed them. This year,  eggs were successfully extracted from Najin and Fatu. They were then matured and fertilized with sperm frozen from deceased northern white rhino males creating embryos. These embryos are now stored in liquid nitrogen to be transferred into a surrogate mother in the near future.

UM Wildlife Biology:  How do you see the role of photography – of your photography – in the world?

Ami Vitale: My hope is that these images can inspire people and remind them that this is the only home we have. We have poked some big holes in our shared little life raft. Personally, what saddens me the most is that our children may not get to experience and benefit from the variety of life we have today. There is a good chance that like the northern white rhinos, a whole host of species will eclipse into myth, like unicorns.  So what must we do? What happens next is in all of our hands. Everyone has the capacity to make an impact by making our voices heard. The truth of the matter is very, very few people are actually engaged in the fate of our planet. Photography can be so powerful.  It has the capacity to shine a light on those who are caring for the environment.  Our future depends on all of them.  If more people are involved, then we will come up with solutions.  There is a role for each and every one of us.

Ami vitale photograph

Photo: Ami Vitale