It had been a pretty frigid morning as summers in the African bush usually are, but the anabatic winds were lifting and swirling, rustling the leaves and grasses all around me. Despite that, the sound of my heart beating in my ears and my deep, slow breathing seemed to overpower them. I was lying in the sand, stone jabbing my ribs, and I was spooning another man, who whispered to me, “stay as close to me as possible”. 

As I raised my head to peer over his, through the thorn bush I could see her: a white rhino cow in her prime, following her calf. She was a little unsettled, given the breeze – and she probably smelt us. She approached along the game trail cautiously and got closer and closer to us. As the adrenaline coursed through my entire being I started to realise that there was no way we could get back to the vehicle in time anymore. Her footsteps started to drown out my heartbeat until I accidentally tipped a stone down the embankment behind us with my foot. She stopped and looked straight at us and I felt what it truly feels like to have no control. I kept thinking, “I can’t believe I’m going to die on my first attempt at filming wildlife”. 

Ulrico recalls the first time he filmed rhinos during a very successful rhino de-horning program in Kwa-Zulu Natal, 2020. Photo by Ulrico

That was in 2015 – and since I’m clearly writing what you’re reading, I suppose it’s no spoiler that I didn’t actually die. Rhino mom trotted off right past our home-made, bright pink (a story for another time) 14-lens 360-degree camera. And so it came to be that we filmed our first ever animal in virtual reality. At that time, I still felt like a video wrapped around one’s head was more a fun gimmick than the deeply powerful tool I now know it to be. That was until I heard that that majestic rhino and her calf, with whom I had experienced that intimately primal moment, had been poached. That was the first time I felt like I had personally lost something out in the wild. I’d grown up here in South Africa travelling to the national parks to see wildlife with my family any chance I got, but this was different. It all came down to that incredibly rare and privileged moment lying under that thorn bush. 

I put a VR headset on to watch the footage back from the perspective of the 360-degree camera we had deployed. And all of those same feelings I experienced filming that day came rushing back; not fear though, just a primal connection to nature, to those rhinos. And somehow, I felt some relief knowing that those rhinos were living on in some strange, digital way. That was the day I understood that immersion could replicate that personal connection to nature without even being in it – and I wanted to do that for as many people around the world as I could. That was the day I became a conservationist. 

Habitat XR cinematographer Jared Reid anticipates a pangolin’s trajectory for ‘A Predicament of Pangolins’ in the southern Kalahari, 2019. Photo by Ulrico

Six years later, Habitat XR has produced virtual reality wildlife experiences in 12 countries around the world for environmental education and to help conservation NGOs fundraise. We’ve worked with WWF, Conservation International, Ellen DeGeneres, and her Ellen Fund, the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, UNDP, and more, helping them to raise record funds for their conservation programs. We’ve filmed species in VR from snow leopards to manta rays, mountain gorillas to pangolins as we dedicate ourselves to using the power of immersive experiences to foster empathy, ultimately using it as a gateway for attitude and behaviour change in humans.

We’ve realised that doing this effectively means giving people hope. We have to balance creating a deeper awareness of how much work needs to be done in conservation with an understanding that, while time is limited, we still have enough of it. So we are very grateful to be part of this community that harnesses the power of positive storytelling. We are here to learn and share so that we can all shape a healthy coexistence between humans and all other nature.

Ulrico Grech-Cumbo is a technologist, conservationist, entrepreneur and immersive filmmaker. After studying mechanical engineering, Ulrico pursued entrepreneurship in the space where technology and storytelling meet. For the past 10 years, Ulrico has run companies that use technology to enable immersion. In 2016, he founded Habitat XR, an impact-led immersive experiences studio with the overarching goal of reconnecting people to nature. Ulrico has directed several environmental virtual reality experiences that have won awards and official selection at Jackson Wild, Wildscreen, SXSW, Tribeca, Cannes, UN SDG Summit and EarthXfilm. In 2016, Ulrico was named one of Fast Company Magazine's Most Creative People in Business.