Ami Vitale’s solution-based narratives for nature and humanity

| Interview

While reporting on conflicts around the globe, Ami Vitale found herself questioning the focus on human brutality and violence. As an acclaimed photojournalist, writer, speaker, and documentary filmmaker, Vitale is now dedicated to illuminating “solution based” narratives, urging people to reimagine their relationship with nature. Her global travels, spanning more than 100 countries, have led her to document diverse subjects, from the conservation of giant pandas in China and efforts to save the last northern white rhinos from extinction to an Indigenous community’s tireless work to rehabilitate and rewild orphaned elephants in East Africa.

Vitale spoke to McKinsey’s Anne Kronschnabl about how solving problems in harmony with nature can lead to better outcomes and growth in local communities, the importance of empowering visual storytellers to bring these solutions to light, and the role of corporations and individuals in preserving the planet.

An edited version of their conversation follows.

Anne Kronschnabl: You had a long career as a photojournalist covering wars and conflict and have said your shift to covering nature and conservation was a continuation of that work. Can you explain how you came to think of it like this?

Ami Vitale: After a decade of covering the world’s horrors, I realized a profound truth: I had been telling stories about people and the human condition, and in the backdrop of nearly every one of these stories was the natural world. In some cases, it was scarcity of basic resources like water. In others, it was the changing climate and loss of fertile lands. But almost always, it was the demands placed on our ecosystem that drove conflict and human suffering.

Anne Kronschnabl: You now say you’re focused on sharing solution-based stories that help us reimagine our relationship with nature. Can you tell us about a successful conservation effort you’ve witnessed in your work that demonstrated this different way of doing things?

Ami Vitale: One of the many inspiring stories I have witnessed involves the Indigenous Samburu people in northern Kenya. Just two or three decades ago, their land was in dire straits. Poaching had decimated the population of rhinos and elephants, triggering a devastating cascade effect. Removing these keystone species disrupted the delicate balance of nature.

In 2016, the local community united and made the remarkable decision to establish a sanctuary for orphaned elephants. Reteti Elephant Sanctuary became a haven for rehabilitating orphaned elephants and other wildlife and eventually reintroducing them back into the wild. When community members initially voiced this ambitious plan, skeptics scoffed. People doubted their ability to make it happen, citing a lack of political influence and financial resources. They asked, “How could you possibly afford such an endeavor?” Yet these resilient individuals, intimately acquainted with their own landscape, persevered against all odds and brought their vision to life.

The most vulnerable moment for orphaned elephants is when they arrive at the sanctuary. They must switch overnight from their own mother’s milk to a powdered milk formula made for humans. Fifty percent of the time, these young orphans die during this transition.

Then during the pandemic, the elephants faced a new challenge. The keepers at Reteti became worried about disruptions to the supply of powdered milk as supply chains broke down. Community members decided to look to nature for a solution. They realized that goats eat the same vegetation as the elephants do, so they started experimenting with using goat milk instead of powdered human milk formula. Not only did it work, but it increased the survival rate from 50 percent to 98 percent.

But the story gets better. Guess who owns all those goats? The women in the community do.

Today, for the first time in their lives, these women are able to earn an income and pay for their children’s school fees and healthcare. The elephants are giving them agency.

The elephant keepers always tell me, “We are not saving the elephants; the elephants are saving us.”

Anne Kronschnabl: What are the most important takeaways from this story as we think about future conservation efforts?

Ami Vitale: This story is a metaphor for all of us. No doubt, we are in one of the most challenging times of our lives as climate change and the nature crisis threaten life as we know it. But if we can embrace the discomfort of this moment, it’s an opportunity to harness nature to do things in a better way. In our most challenging moments, we can often move beyond routine ways of thinking and make transformative discoveries.

Anne Kronschnabl: How can solution-based storytelling mobilize the public to take action on the nature crisis?

Ami Vitale: Stories that showcase successful solutions give people hope. In the face of environmental challenges, hope can inspire action. When individuals see that positive change is possible, they are more likely to engage in efforts to address the crisis.

Solution-based storytelling can also create a groundswell of public support and action, driving positive change and helping address the nature crisis effectively. That is why I created a nonprofit, Vital Impacts, to help get more of these stories into the world and to mentor and support the next generation of environmental storytellers.

Anne Kronschnabl: How could corporations have a meaningful impact in protecting and restoring nature?

Ami Vitale: There isn’t a magic bullet that is going to save all of us, but effort needs to come from every direction. It might sound cliché, but I’ve seen change start locally within one office or one group of individuals trying to find solutions. Years ago, National Geographic launched Planet or Plastic?, a multiyear initiative to reduce single-use plastics. All global editions of National Geographic magazine are now wrapped in paper instead of plastic, saving more than 2.5 million single-use plastic bags every month.1 The company initiated a third-party audit of its single-use plastic use and has developed an action plan to further minimize single-use plastics in the workplace.

Corporations can play a significant role in protecting and restoring nature by adopting such sustainable practices, supporting conservation initiatives, and engaging in responsible business operations.

Anne Kronschnabl: What are a few tangible actions that individuals can take to help preserve our planet?

Ami Vitale: We can all play a role in protecting our planet for future generations. Small actions add up, and collective efforts can make a significant difference. Reduce consumption, recycle, repurpose items, and be mindful of your ecological footprint. Be conscious of what you eat and what you buy. If you have a choice, use it to send a message; companies will listen. Do all you can to care for the other 99 percent: the plants and critters that inhabit the Earth. They are fellow travelers. Our future happiness depends on them too. Above all, treat other humans with empathy. There is room enough for all of us—but only if we hear, truly hear, what others are saying.

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