'Nature is resilient if we give it a chance and make it a priority. All of us have the ability to ignite action to help shape the world we want to live in.'
After more than a decade of documenting war zones, photographer, writer and documentary filmmaker Ami Vitale turned her lens to compelling wildlife stories with the belief that "you can't talk about humanity without talking about nature." This is no more evident than in her championing of Kenya's Reteti Elephant Sanctuary, the first community-owned and run elephant sanctuary in Africa. Opened by the Samburu community in 2016, Reteti cares for orphaned and abandoned elephant calves with the aim of releasing them back into the wild. Speaking to My Modern Met, Vitale, who documents the story of one special orphaned elephant at the sanctuary in her short film, "Shaba," opened up about the challenges the sanctuary faced during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I had been working with this Samburu community for many years before the sanctuary opened. Back then, having this elephant sanctuary was just a dream and many people thought it would never be possible. When I heard about it and then met all the extraordinary people behind this project, I knew they would do it and I have stayed by them since then, waiting for their beautiful success story to unfold," she explained. "Everywhere I go, I see people, often with very little, making huge impacts in their communities and the planet. I think it's important to shed some light on those stories of hope, where against all odds, individuals are making a difference."
"These stories about wildlife and our environment are really about all of us, our home, our future. I am constantly seeing the wonder and magic of this world. Wonder allows us to get beyond routine ways of thinking. It allows us to believe that we can fundamentally change the course we are currently on. Stories like these have a universal truth and they become a blueprint for so many other places. These are the kinds of stories that really matter to all of us," Vitale added.
Speaking of how the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary functions, the conservation photographer explained that young calves arrive at the sanctuary due to a number of reasons. "The orphans arrive at the sanctuary as a result of human-elephant conflict, climate-related issues, and in one rare case, because of poaching. Kenya has actually made tremendous progress and poaching is rare. Sadly, now the biggest threat to these creatures is climate change and devastating droughts. I am here now and the rains have not yet come. There are almost 40 orphaned elephants because of these ongoing droughts," she shared.
Vitale revealed that the last couple of years have been particularly trying for the sanctuary as they, like the rest of the world, grappled with the effects of the pandemic. "Due to the global disruptions caused by the Coronavirus, the orphanage was forced to adapt and look for a different way to feed its calves. Normally the calves are fed powdered milk formula, the same that humans use for infants, but the lockdowns made travel from the sanctuary to cities difficult, which meant sanctuary workers couldn't access formula. This left already vulnerable baby elephants in a desperate situation. The team had been mulling over how to improve their milk recipe for a long time. The orphanage had used human baby formula since its establishment in 2016, but costs were high, cans had to be imported, and nutrients weren't always natural," she explained.
"In response to the increasingly difficult situation, the sanctuary had to come up with a simple and innovative solution quickly. The community found a surprising alternative by testing fresh milk from local goats. After studying the formula and extensive research, they put the new formula to the test and fed the baby elephants the goat's milk. Reteti's elephant keepers quickly noticed that the young elephants were getting healthier—the goat milk was working better than the powdered milk formula that came from tin cans," Vitale shared. "Since making the switch from the formula that the elephants had relied on for years, the animals are thriving. The change has also brought a shift in the relationship between the community and the calves—the goat's milk is more nutritious, sustainable for the planet, and empowers women in the community who are benefitting from this new source of income."
"Many of the 'milk mamas' as they call themselves, are setting up bank accounts for the first time in their lives, saving money, and using the income for everything from taking their children to school or paying hospital bills. This milk is giving women a space at the table when discussing pastoralist grazing plans for the future," she added. When asked if she had a message for others about Reteti and the work that they do, Vitale said: "I want everyone to know that what happens next is in all of our hands. Nature is resilient if we give it a chance and make it a priority. All of us have the ability to ignite action to help shape the world we want to live in. There is a role for each and every one of us and the messenger matters as much as the message. It's important that every one of us be that messenger."