By James Estrin
Ami Vitale is a photographer and filmmaker who has worked in more than 85 countries. She is a contract photographer for National Geographic and works with the Photo Society and Ripple Effect Images. She is currently crowdfunding to complete a photography and multiplatform media project in northern Kenya, begun with the Nature Conservancy, on how local communities are protecting their wildlife from poaching. Her interview with James Estrin has been edited.
Q. Tell me about this project.
A. The illegal wildlife trade and poaching are decimating the animals and landscapes of Africa. If you go there, it’s shocking. We hear about it and see these stories, but until you see it first hand it’s really hard to get your head wrapped around that.
But there are solutions and we have to start looking at the human aspect: why people are driven to do this and how do you make it stop? And there are a few places where people are actually making a difference through strengthening community. We forget that the best protectors of these landscapes are the indigenous people. This is their land and they have greater empathy and greater understanding than any of us can have. That’s why this piece of the story needs to be told.
I spent some time in northern Kenya at the end of last year and I found communities that are actually doing some incredible things to protect these species and their story’s not being told. I feel that if their story can be heard it could actually help influence other communities and become a model for the future.
Q. What precisely are these communities doing?
A. They have created conservancies. In Africa, mostly in the past, there were these beautiful lodges where foreigners came and spent a lot of money — but the locals never saw any of the profit.
In northern Kenya, The Northern Rangelands Trust established conservancies where there are lodges and the tourists come in, but the locals actually own those lodges and the tourism dollars go directly back to them.
So they understand the benefit of these animals and they love these animals. The money involved in poaching is so huge. So now when they find poachers in their communities, they actually shame these people into stopping. It is just very powerful.
Making a livelihood in these really remote places is incredibly difficult. But when these animals are poached, that money is not going to the communities. They’re not making that much money. I mean, it’s a lot for living in that community, but the reality is that it’s these middlemen who make the money.
The community understands that when they’re getting these high-end tourists, it’s actually far more valuable to them over the long term than the short-term gain of poaching.
Q. Then the only thing that will save these animals would be not a dozen communities like these, but thousands.
A. I’m not saying that this is the only solution. There has to be a political will, but this is a huge piece of it, which has not been discussed. There’s a lot of things that need to happen to make poaching stop.
Q. Including law enforcement, but that doesn’t seem to be doing it.
A. No, it really is an all-out war. Part of what I’ll be showing in this story is that these communities have established what we might call a local neighborhood watch. They know who the poachers are and have a trained elite team that goes around with assault rifles and night-vision goggles secretly trying to stop poaching.
There’s also a link to terrorism, and the Westgate attack really brought it all home. I mean, those guys are being funded by poaching. And this is another aspect that I’m going to be covering. We live in this intricately connected world and poaching does matter. It really does matter to all of us.
Q. And to get the story told you are relying on crowdfunding?
A. This happened because the Photo Society asked if I had any stories that I was dying to work on that could be crowdfunded through Indie Voices.
And this has been on my mind since I’ve left Kenya. They accepted it, and the exciting thing, I realized, is that crowdfunding is not only about the money, it’s about building community around an issue. Photos.