(Photo by Ami Vitale)
Carnegie Mellon University

In the era of COVID-19, be part of the hope for the wild

One microscopic virus can paralyze much of the world. But even in quarantine, one person has the ability to make a world of positive difference for others. 

Award-winning National Geographic photographer Ami Vitale attests to the power of one individual to do good. As a photojournalist, she has spent years covering wildlife conservation stories.

But to her, they are more than just stories to be shared with the world. She has launched a variety of fundraising initiatives over the years to help and inspire others to support the people and wildlife she covers. 

This spring, she has partnered with Omaze to support Ol Pejeta conservancy in Kenya. While Ol Pejeta is home to several of the most iconic animals of the African plains, including chimpanzees, lions and elephants, Vitale’s fundraiser specifically supports the keepers there in caring for rhino species under threat from human activity.

Normally relying on tourism to fund their conservation efforts, Ol Pejeta has been heavily affected by the COVID-19 pandemic as demand for travel ground to a near halt. As a bonus, one winner will be drawn to win an all-expenses-paid wildlife safari, with one guest, to Ol Pejeta with Vitale once it is safe to travel. 

Although at first blush her fundraising initiative seems to have little to do with the pandemic beyond helping to mitigate the economic fallout, COVID-19 is just the latest indicator of how the relationship between humanity and nature is unhealthy.

The COVID-19 crisis has created a fallout unprecedented in recent memory, but it is far from the only infectious disease to have emerged in the modern era that had a zoonotic, or animal, source. Nor is it the first deadly coronavirus to have jumped from animals to humans, as the deadly SARS outbreak of 2003 attests to.    

Human activity is a primary factor to blame for bringing these infectious diseases out of their original animal hosts. For one, deforestation is a major way that infectious diseases can spread from wildlife to people. As humans destroy forest habitats, animals are either forced into more human contact as they attempt to find new homes or find that new human-created habitats suit them well, according to National Geographic.

For example, the intentional burning of rainforests in Indonesia for agriculture forced fruit bats from their habitats and into Malaysian fruit orchards, where they infected local pigs and pig farmers with the Nipah virus. Also, deforestation is associated with spikes in malaria cases, as mosquitoes that carry malaria find good breeding grounds in pools of water that form in cleared areas of forests, according to National Geographic.

The wildlife trade, legal or otherwise, is another driver of emerging infectious diseases, including COVID-19. In “wet” wildlife markets, hundreds or thousands of live and dead animals that would normally never be nearby are crammed into highly unsanitary conditions along with the humans who work there, creating an ideal hotbed for diseases to cross-species. Both the coronavirus that caused SARS in 2003 and the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 emerged from wildlife wet markets in China, according to National Geographic, likely jumping from bats to an intermediate species — in the case of SARS it was palm civets — before jumping to humans.

Earth is our only home. The integrity of nature is what allows us to survive. Protecting the wild is also protecting ourselves — from the devastation of climate change, from the health effects of air pollution and from the ricocheting effects of pandemics. Protecting nature is literally protecting our own futures. 

All the bad headlines about the greed of powerful people who have an interest in fighting actions to protect the environment can seem depressing. But happily for those of us without political power, it is not only world or local leaders who have the power to set a more environmentally friendly course for humanity. Indeed, individual actions added up can be more powerful than any policy directive — certainly, in democracies, the quality of the politicians reflect the values of the voters. 

If you have the financial means to, one way to do just that is through Vitale’s recent fundraising initiative supporting Ol Pejeta’s work caring for rhinos. Ol Pejeta is home to the last two northern white rhinos alive, mother and daughter Najin and Fatu, as well as a handful of southern white rhinos and black rhinos.

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Like the COVID-19 pandemic, the endangered status of rhinos is the result of human activity. 

Rhinos are relentlessly poached for their horns, which is valued in some Asian societies as a status symbol and as a supposed cure for a variety of ailments. This is despite the fact that rhino horns are made of keratin, the same substance that forms human fingernails.

Despite the fact that the rhino horn trade has been banned internationally under CITES since 1977, rhinos continue to be under threat from poachers as their horns continue to command astronomically high prices in the black market, according to National Geographic. This is the reason the rhinos at Ol Pejeta live under 24/7 armed guard. 

Another threat to rhinos is habitat loss from land clearing for agriculture. Rhinos need large areas to survive, so they are extremely vulnerable to habitat fragmentation. 

Vitale’s connection to Ol Pejeta and the rhino story goes back over a decade. She had been a war zone photographer but eventually realized that she wanted to document the intimate connection between nature and humanity. Instead of documenting the things that depress and divide us, she wanted to show us what hope looks like beyond the latest headlines and what people can accomplish united together.

This led her to the rhino story in 2009 when she traveled to a zoo in the Czech Republic to cover the last-ditch effort to relocate four of the eight northern white rhinos still alive, then to Kenya in hopes that the environment there would lead to more rhinos being born.

This was when Vitale forged a connection with Sudan, who would eventually become the last male northern white rhino. For her, meeting Sudan on the winter day when he was being crate-trained for his journey back to Kenya was almost a mystical moment, as he was such a gentle giant whose kind had once roamed with the dinosaurs.  

The effort to breed more northern white rhinos in Kenya eventually failed to produce any new offspring. In 2018, Sudan’s veterinary team decided to euthanize Sudan, as he was suffering greatly from age-related complications. As he was dying, Vitale was by his side, along with the keepers who had dedicated themselves to taking care of him.

There wasn’t a dry eye in those final moments as they watched the species become functionally extinct at the hands of man; for a while, Vitale could barely talk about the story without tearing up.

The powerful picture she took of one of the keepers and Sudan together became iconic; it was featured on a National Geographic magazine cover and was voted photo of the decade by the magazine’s followers on Instagram.

ami02  In the era of COVID 19, be part of the hope for the wild
(Photo courtesy of Ami Vitale)

Yet, there’s hope for the species as scientists from the BioRescue project had saved sperm from Sudan and other male northern white rhinos before they passed. They have already created three viable northern white rhino embryos, which the scientists will attempt to implant into a surrogate southern white rhino.

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For a long time, conservation has been a cause close to my heart. Now more than ever, I hope that we can use the pandemic as an impetus for all of humankind to treat Mother Earth better. The integrity of Mother Earth dictates what our lives look like because we are all so fundamentally interconnected. 

The image of Sudan dying touched millions of hearts worldwide. If you are moved by the plight of rhinos and if you want to make a positive contribution to the world in the middle of these troubling times, I hope you consider becoming part of the hope for rhinos and the wild at large by donating to or sharing Vitale’s fundraiser for Ol Pejeta. 

We owe it to our “mother” to treat it as best as we can when it literally nourishes our very existence. We owe it to ourselves too, for as Conservation International puts it: “Nature doesn’t need people. People need nature.”  

To follow more of her work, check out Ami Vitale’s Instagram @amivitale.