Working with National Geographic and living as residents of Botswana for the last 28 years, filmmakers Dereck and Beverly Joubert have had their fair share of close calls while shooting wildlife footage in the African savannah.
“The more knowledge we have and the more we are able read an animal’s body language, the safer we are,” said Beverly during a phone interview with me from her and Dereck’s home in Southern Africa. “But it doesn’t always work out that way. Things happen.”
On one occasion, Dereck and Beverly stared death square in the face while scouting African elephants for a new film project. Before they knew it, one of the massive mammals broke through the thick reed where they had parked to survey the herd and charged their vehicle.
“She came full force and hit us,” Beverly said. “Her head was on the hood of our vehicle and we were eyeballing each other.”
The amount of danger the Joubert’s have experienced has never deterred them from doing the work they love. In their most recent film, “The Last Lions,” Dereck and Beverly follow a lioness they name Ma di Tau (“Mother of Lions”) and her three cubs as they journey through the wetlands of Africa after being pushed out of their territory by an aggressive pride.
During our interview, Dereck and Beverly talked to me about the impact the extinction of lions would have on Africa, why they chose not to completely disconnect themselves from their subjects on an emotional level, and whether they think lions are able to convey grief when something traumatic happens to them.
The statistics are startling when you read about the lion population. In the last 50 years, the number of lions on earth has decreased from 450,000 to 20,000. How did we end up at this point?
Dereck Joubert: There has always been a perception that someone is taking care of the lions. Lions are the most iconic predator in the world. As such, I think the general perception is that Africa is full of lions. Once we started looking at the numbers as a research group, we started to find out how bad it really was. To see those numbers is traumatic. These animals will be extinct in the next 10 or 15 years.
If lions become extinct in the next decade, what kinds of changes in the African ecosystem are we likely to see?
DJ: There is a whole range of things that will happen. All of these African savannah ecosystems in particular are driven by the predators. Imagine how migration works. A lot of animals move around because they can’t stay in one place very long because the predator concentration will move them out. Without that, migration would stop. Also, as these African communities have less and less of these predators, they become more and more divorced from those predators and healthy ecosystems. That impacts them in a spiritual way and in a connective way to Africa. People will become more and more separated from everything that Africa represents in nature.
What about ecotourism? Will people still visit Africa if there are no lions?
DJ: Ecotourism brings in $80 billion a year. A large amount of that money goes to African communities. We think a large portion of that comes from people driven to see the big predators – lions in particular. If you take lions out of the formula, tourism will drop. When that happens, that $80 billion a year revenue stream shrinks down to something much less than that and we will have more poverty-stricken communities.
Was Ma di Tau a lioness you had been following for awhile? How did you decide she would be the focus of this documentary?
Beverly Joubert: We had been studying these lions three years before we decided to film Ma di Tau’s story. We were constantly on the look out for a lioness like her. When we saw that she was an individual lioness, we thought it was very unique. Normally, lions are very social and in a pride. We knew it was something we needed to pay attention to, but still didn’t realize she was going to be the story. At the end of the day, her story touched us more.
Of course, you have no idea what is going to happen as you continue filming her story. As filmmakers do you have to disconnect yourself from these lions on an emotional level just to get through the day? I can’t even imagine how you were able to continue shooting footage after what happens in the river with those crocodiles.
BJ: There is a fine line because we do need to have that emotional connection. Often it is more emotionally exhausting that it is physically exhausting. I think that is the only way we can portray the lions correctly. The emotion we were feeling needed to come across so the audience felt it as well. At the same time, we need to make sure our emotions don’t make us interfere. Starting off as National Geographic filmmakers, it was important to Dereck and I that as true documentarians we would not interfere when it was a natural situation taking place.
There are some great villains in the film. There’s the silver-eyed lioness that always seemed to be lurking around and also the scar-faced buffalo that makes its share of appearances. It was almost like I was watching a James Bond movie.
DJ: (Laughs) Yes, Silver Eye was a wonderful character. She is obviously a villain, but she is also a very tricky lioness. I think it might have to do with the fact that she can’t see properly from the one eye. Any movement on that side and she will react aggressively.
You both obviously put yourself in danger to get footage for National Geographic. Other than the elephants, what are some of those dangers?
BJ: Mosquitoes are a danger because they can give us malaria. We also have to watch for scorpion stings, snake bites, and amoebas from the water that can really debilitate you and make you very ill. Then there are mechanical failures that can happen. We experienced one of those while on an airplane. The brakes failed during landing. The plane was circling down the runway and then overturned. Those are things we go through on a daily basis, but it’s all about being aware and alert and not starting each day fearful.
An interesting question posed in the second half of the film is if animals, specifically lions, can feel grief. It’s hard to argue against that after the footage you capture with Ma di Tau. What are you personal thoughts on a lion’s emotional awareness?
BJ: There’s no doubt for us that animals do have emotions. I find it very hard to believe that we are the only species that feels emotion. But on that note, we don’t know what these animals are feeling. After 28 years of observing predators, we have learned to understand that some of them have been pushed into severe emotional trauma. It’s what they do after this trauma that seems so obvious that something is going through their minds. Whether it’s the same kind of pain and sadness that we feel, it’s impossible to know. But as we watched these lions, we felt their pain within us.
To learn more about The Big Cats Initiative and to make a donation to the cause, visit the National Geographic website here.