Award-winning film makers Dereck and Beverly Joubert have been documenting the behaviour of Africa’s big cats for over 30 years. Living in a tent in the wilds of Botswana, this adventurous couple spends up to 18 hours a day in their vehicle out on the floodplains of the Okavango Delta: watching, photographing and filming lions. To date they have produced 25 films for National Geographic with major accolades including seven Emmys, a Peabody Award and the World Ecology Award.
Dereck and Beverly met while they were still at high school in South Africa. After university they wanted to spend time in the wilderness, because as Dereck puts it: “we all are explorers at heart. We like to know that the world is not tame”. They set off for Botswana, and soon after arriving decided to focus in on the area’s lions, since understanding these apex predators would give them greater insight into the other intricacies of this fragile ecosystem - and so began their life's work.
Beverly and Dereck spend months at a time observing a single pride of lion: Beverly takes photographs and records sound while Dereck films.
Filming in the Savute
During their first 15 years in Botswana this husband-and-wife team filmed mostly at night, capturing intense battles between the lions and packs of hyenas in the Savute. Scenes of hyenas making kills and lions rushing in to scavenge from them challenged the way scientists thought about these animals’ behaviour, and the bloody feuds and gang-like antics made their National Geographic series “Eternal Enemies – Lions & Hyenas” something of a cult classic, and one of the most popular wildlife shows ever produced with estimates of a quarter of a billion viewers so far.
Capturing these scenes is far from easy and requires endless patience. Both Dereck and Beverly live by strict rules of engagement: they don’t interfere and will never try to provoke a look or a charge for the sake of their films. Instead they put in the time, often sleeping in their vehicle, waiting for those rare moments that make their films so memorable. “In filming we could be sitting for 16 or 18 hours and nothing happens” says Beverly “and then, in a split second everything is over.”
The stars of their recent films "The Last Lions" Ma di Tau and her two cubs.
The Last Lions
But when the action does happen they’re there to record it, even if it takes them months - or years - to capture and piece together those spectacular cinematic moments for which their films are known. Seven years: that’s how long Dereck and Beverly followed and filmed a lioness named Ma di Tau (“Mother of Lions”) for their latest movie “The Last Lions” - an epic tale of a mother battling to protect her cubs from a wide range of threats including a raging fire and a rival pride.
“The Last Lions” is a beautifully shot movie and an incredible story that carries with it a sobering message: Africa’s big cats are disappearing at an alarming rate! In the last 75 years the continent’s lion population has declined by 90%, plummeting from 450,000 to 20,000 lions of which only around 3,500 are males. The Jouberts strongly feel that if we don’t do something about this critical situation, within 10 or 15 years we won't have a single big cat left in the wild.
Will this cub live to dominate a territory? "The Last Lions" shows that their survival as a species depends on us.
The Big Cats Initiative
Along with using their movies to raise awareness of the plight of the world’s big cats, Dereck and Beverly together with National Geographic have founded the Big Cats Initiative. For the most part lions are disappearing because of rising human-predator conflict: habitat encroachment, trophy hunting, poaching and the bone trade are all taking their toll on predator numbers.
The Big Cats Initiative raises funds for immediate, on-the-ground action plans to save the world’s lions, tigers, cheetahs and snow leopards. Current projects include helping the Maasai to create better bomas to reduce the threat of (and their conflict with) predators, combating wire-snare poaching in Zambia’s Luangwa Valley and an insurance scheme in Pakistan that recovers the monetary loss of livestock killed by snow leopards and so mitigates the herders desire to retaliate.
Another huge area of concern is commercial hunting. Around 600 lions are shot a year as trophies, and the Jouberts strongly feel that the people who are doing the hunting simply aren’t aware of current lion numbers – they think there is an endless supply. To make matters worse, when a male lion is killed it causes complete disruption to the pride since the male lion that comes in to take over kills all the cubs and possibly even some of the females that are defending their young, resulting in up to 30 deaths.
The lions of Duba Island have learned to hunt buffalo in order to survive (photo: Beverly Joubert).
Selinda Camp & the Linyanti Swamps
Dereck and Beverly have also expanded into conservation tourism and partly own Selinda Camp, a remote tented camp that overlooks the Selinda Spillway. This magnificent area of grasslands and palm-forest islands forms a vital corridor linking the Okavango Delta and the Linyanti ecosystems, and is well known for fantastic big game numbers.
The linking of wildlife areas is an important issue to Dereck: “What we have done in African wildlife management is divide up free ranges and make them into islands of safe zones surrounded by wildlife hostile blocks, be they hunting, ranching, farming or civilization. If any effort at all is to be put into conservation it has to go towards linking these islands again, joining them up and recreating home ranges and natural migration routes.”
Remote Selinda Camp offers extraordinary views over the floodplains of the wildlife-rich Selinda Spillway.
Life in The Wild
It’s clear that Dereck and Beverly are passionate about the work that they do, and show real care and concern about Africa’s big cats. They spend up to nine months at a time out in the wilds of Botswana, not seeing another human being, working from sun up to sun down, putting up with extreme temperatures and whatever the elements throw at them.
“We never wanted the life where I would go off to the office and come back late at night, cranky, have a scotch, and spend an hour or two with Beverly, who had a completely different life” says Dereck. “so we designed our lives so that we could be together.”
And through their work – their films, books and conservation efforts – this husband-and-wife team are making a real effort to turn around the drastic decline in big cat numbers. “It’s imperative that we start protecting the predators” says Beverly, “because the predators are that umbrella species that keeps everything else in the system alive.”
Tracking lions in the Okavango with Beverly up spotting and Dereck behind the wheel (photo Don Lee, 60 Minutes).
Find out more about Selinda Camp.