A Conversation with Ami Vitale

MON_2175Ami Vitale, best known for her international news and cultural documentation, has been praised as a humane and empathetic storyteller. She has received recognition for her work from World Press Photo, the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA), International Photos of the Year, Photo District News, and the Society of American Travel Writers, among others. Recently, she completed the most unimaginable exploration that took multiple visits over the course of three years in China to tell a charming and incredible tale: China’s cautious attempts to reintroduce captive-bred baby pandas back to the wild.

Lisa Lytton: In China, Giant panda cubs are born and bred in captivity and human “nannies” sometimes help to keep them alive. Why can’t the panda parents teach their young to survive in the wild?

Ami Vitale: After one generation in captivity, pandas lose their survival skills. Believe it or not, they need to be trained to be “wild”. They need to relearn how to run away from predators, how to find the best bamboo, how to get leeches off and a host of other lessons that will ensure they make it once they are released back into the wild.  

Lisa: You and the handlers dress as pandas to minimize subjects’ human interactions. What is it like to wear a panda suit?

Ami: It was hilarious and surreal. I felt like I was inside a Wes Anderson film. 

Lisa: No matter how much we learn about pandas, they always seem a little mysterious—kind of otherworldly.

Ami: After reading everything I could about pandas, going to China multiple times, getting to know the people, and finally getting to understand the pandas, their story blew my mind! It’s hard to imagine, but these animals were once as mythical and elusive as Bigfoot.

Lisa: Mythical pandas?

Ami: Absolutely. They’ve been around for eight million years, but were only discovered within the last century, and the first one wasn’t captured alive until 1936. Think about Chinese art. For thousands of years, there were no artistic representations of giant pandas, even though you can find images of bamboo and other animals and even bears. 

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Lisa: How have they stuck around for so long?

Ami: Adaptation. Remember pandas are bears that survived on a diet of meat long ago. Rather than fight and compete with other predators, pandas adapted their diet to eat almost exclusively bamboo. They changed their digestive system, behaviors, and even their body shape. They even have a sixth toe that helps them grasp the bamboo better when they are eating.

Lisa: Pandas are among the most photographed animals in the world. What new story have you found to tell about them?

Ami: In a region where bad environmental news is common, China is performing a minor miracle. The giant panda was recently taken off the endangered species list. I wanted to show that miracles can happen. And I wanted to understand how China, a country not known for its environmental health, could save an animal on the brink of extinction.

Though the panda is idolized by billions and is a virtual brand name, pandas were considered to be drifting towards extinction. But now, there is a glimmer of hope as years of research are finally paying off.

Lisa: What most surprised you about the pandas when you finally met them?

Ami: This is a very rare, finicky endangered animal with teeth and claws. With only a few thousand in the world, the Chinese treat it as a national symbol, and each panda is closely guarded and watched. They are multi–million dollar bears that everyone treats with kid gloves, and they are highly vulnerable. Getting close, without interfering with their biology and conservation, and in a way that was acceptable to its very protective minders, was challenging. It was not just about getting access and gaining local trust, but also about being able to work with a wild animal. 

Lisa: The panda story is one of man understanding its mistakes and working to fix them. Is it hard finding this kind of story, or have you found others already?

Ami: Many more! That’s what I am working on now.

Lisa: I know this is a serious tale of survival. But be honest—aren’t there moments when you’re overwhelmed by the pandas’ sheer charm?

Ami: Yes, I’ve died of cuteness overload many times over.

Lisa: Your Ingage story about the pandas is one of many ways you’re presenting this amazing material. What lesson are you hoping to share with the world?

Ami: The panda reminds us that nature is resilient—but we have to give it a chance for it to succeed. Now the question is, how do we turn this incredible story of success into a solution to the larger problem, which is the long-term survival of all endangered species, including uncharismatic ones, as well as the preservation of ecosystems that sustain them?

Lisa: As people grow more curious about pandas and other creatures at risk, what advice would you give aspiring nature photographers or other animal buffs?

Ami: People forget the “wild” in” wildlife”. We forget that a giant panda bear is still a bear. The temptation is to get up close and personal with wild animals, but these interactions can have lethal consequences—for us and them. The most important way to learn about wildlife is to keep your distance and be incredibly respectful. Try to concentrate on just one species at a time, learn all you can about both the animal and its home, and never stalk them.

Lisa: You didn’t start out in nature photography. You spent years chronicling human struggles in over 90 countries around the globe. What led you into telling animal stories?

Ami: I realized as I took pictures of people and cultures that I could bring that same sensibility into wildlife and nature stories. Here’s the thing that really struck me: everything is connected to nature. Even though the issues I was covering were issues of security, every one of those issues ended up being dependent on nature for its outcomes. This is the biggest story out there. It’s not really about animals. It’s really about us. I’m not a nature photographer. I use nature as the foil but it’s about us, our future, and where we are going. I am using the lens of nature to tell the story of what connects us all: our home.

Lisa: No question, Earth is the one thing we all share. 

Ami: It absolutely is. In a world of seven billion people, we must see ourselves as part of the landscape. Our fate is linked to the fate of animals. Saving nature is really about saving ourselves.