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‘My Africa:’ VR as the 21st Century Nature Documentary

"Virtual reality can give viewers that in-depth experience that is so needed to build empathy and, we hope, inspire action."

Produced by Conservation International, the virtual reality project is “My Africa,” transports viewers to an elephant sanctuary in Kenya, where a community is reknitting the bonds that have long enabled people and wildlife to coexist.

Viewable on mobile and VR platforms via the WITHIN app​, the experience is also available in 360-degree video on  

Directed by David Allen, the project was captured with virtual reality cameras in the Namunyak Wildlife Conservancy in Samburu County of northern Kenya at the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary, the first elephant orphanage in Africa owned and operated by the local community. In a region where conservation has traditionally been pursued by outsiders, Reteti, and the surrounding conservancy organization, Northern Rangelands Trust, offer a different model—one grounded in local leadership and traditional knowledge. 

The film opens with iconic wildlife scenes: Viewers stand in the midst of a thundering herd of wildebeest migrating across the Mara River, in front of a lioness as she captures her prey, and later, with an inquisitive baby elephant in a community-led sanctuary in northern Kenya.   

A young Samburu woman named Naltwasha Leripe, with narration in English by Lupita Nyong’o, takes viewers through her community’s daily life, tending livestock, digging “singing” wells deep into dry riverbanks and rescuing a baby elephant orphaned by a poacher’s gun.

Melina Formisano, Conservation International’s vice president for marketing, recalls “The production team completed ‘My Africa’ in basically two major locations. One was in the Maasai Mara in western Kenya, which is one of the country’s most famous wildlife reserves. The team achieved some stunning shots, including a wildebeest migration and, for the first time in virtual reality, a lioness capturing her prey, which viewers get to witness from about 10 feet away. 

“To get the most out of the virtual reality medium, the camera needs to be right in the middle of the action, but everything else must be out-of-sight, including the director and crew,” she continues. “Filming in this way has its risks. Our director of photography on the shoot, Chris Campkin of Vision3, was dropped off in a ditch on the banks of the Mara River to ensure the camera was still in position and the battery was charged, as the crew had been waiting for days for the animals to make their river crossing. At that very moment, the wildebeest began to charge and it was too late for the jeep to pick-up Chris until the action subsided, so he hunkered down while the herd rumbled around him.” To read the full interview, click here.

“This film shows a new way, one that unites, rather than divides, people from wildlife,” explains said project executive producer and Conservation International CEO Dr. M. Sanjayan. “Today, conservation is not about building fences but rather breaking down barriers, so that local communities benefit when nature thrives.”

“My Africa” is Conservation International’s third virtual reality project, following “Valen’s Reef” and “Under the Canopy.” The virtual reality approach, says Sanjayan, is bringing the nature documentary into the 21st century and is aimed at reaching new audiences to grow broader support for conservation. “Virtual reality can give viewers that in-depth experience that is so needed to build empathy and, we hope, inspire action.”

Read more: “My Africa” Field Notes: Capturing Baby Elephants in Virtual Reality

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