Sunday February 2 2014

The Jouberts: The couple passionate about big cats

Dereck and Beverly Joubert have committed their lives to filming and conserving wildlife

Dereck and Beverly Joubert have committed their lives to filming and conserving wildlife 

For more than 30 years, Dereck and Beverly Joubert have documented the lives of Africa’s iconic and endangered big cats, first in their native South Africa, and now in Botswana, their home since 1981.

Cats, the couple braves the wild to film are nature’s most majestic predators, feared, iconic and ferocious. All members of the world’s big cat clan, including lions, tigers, leopards, cheetahs, jaguars and cougars will be represented in the fifth annual Big Cat Week that premiers today at 7pm on Nat Geo WILD, DStv.

These cats are known for their incredible beauty, agility, speed and brute strength; we all want to watch them but everyone fears them and yet the fact is that they face more danger than they pose. Without intervention, most of them especially lions are heading for extinction.

It is against this backdrop that National Geographic Explorers-in-Residence and renowned filmmakers Beverly & Dereck Joubert started the Big Cat Week as an extension of the Big Cats Initiative (BCI), a long-term commitment by the National Geographic Society to stop poaching, save habitat and sound the call that big steps are needed to save big cats around the world.

Your lifestyle is, a bit unusual. How did the two of you meet?
We went to high school together, that’s where we met. But I remember there was a party for Beverly’s 21st year I looked around the room and there were a lot of other 21-year-old girls there, all with very mediocre ambitions. I remember saying to Beverly, enjoy the night, but I think that tomorrow we should leave we should go out into the bush and live an extraordinary life. Because the alternatives were scary.

I think, largely, Beverly and I had fallen in love and wanted to go out and lead a romantic lifestyle, and stumbled into the science and the conservation and the filming. But very early on we discovered we needed to be a voice, and a voice for conservation.

And did you leave the next day?
We did actually that’s whenFor more than 30 years, Dereck and Beverly Joubert have documented the lives of Africa’s iconic and endangered big cats, first in their native South Africa, and now in Botswana, their home since 1981. we started our work in South Africa. It’s an interesting life for us. We now live in a tent, on an island in the Okavango River. That’s what we call home. We don’t have a staff, it’s just us. We do everything ourselves; we repair the tent when snakes and mice dig their way in, we follow lions, we record our thoughts in Moleskin journals, and all of those things that could place us in an environment 100 years ago in many ways. And yet we’ve got the most recent HD cameras that are capturing these images. There’s this funny sort of blend of authentic exploring, modern-day technology, creative thought and romance all intersecting in one spot in our lives

When did the Big Cat Week start, and for what specific purpose?
When we asked National Geographic Channel to support a cause we had started inside of the Society called Big Cats Initiative. Beverly and I founded this project because we were disturbed by declining lion, cheetah and leopards numbers and we needed to activate serious conservation measures to stop such rapid declines. Our conversation with the Channel was about dedicating a week at a time to telling the world about the beauty of cats and the conservation around saving them. And extension of this is also our Cause an Uproar campaign that raises money directly for big cat conservation. It’s sort of our way, and Nat Geo Wild’s way to say to the world, “Let’s spend a week just engulfing ourselves in everything ‘big cats’ in the hope that we can change the world’s perception of these animals and save them.”

For how long have you been profiling big cats?
We have been working with big cats for over 30 years now. During that time we have produced films, books, talks, magazine articles and yet when we looked back five years ago. We realised that we needed to change our methods. Just doing films on lions was not working for them (animals). So we came up with a larger initiative. BCI was born as a hands-on conservation effort. Today, we fund over 35 projects in the field in over 13 countries.

How many lions are left in the world?
Estimates are somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 but they come off a level just 50 or so years ago of about 450,000. Uganda has roughly 600, certainly less than 1,000 left.

Why should a Ugandan care whether big cats’ numbers are going down or not?
The reason Ugandans or anyone should care is that without the whole and healthy natural ecosystems all countries start to struggle. As natural landscapes collapse they bring about poverty and a general unravelling of our land. In Africa, we lose a spiritual connection to the continent when its wildlife goes, we lose revenues (Africa generates $80Billion a year from eco-tourism) and most of that is from people who come to see big cats. Gorillas generate a tiny fraction of tourism dollars.

We also lose personal wealth through jobs created by the tourism industry. Without tourism, foreign travellers will not travel to Uganda, thus, Uganda and its people would be cut off from that interaction, where they meet people from all over the world and understand them and become more worldly and knowledgeable – and education and worldly exposure is our ticket out of poverty.

We lose a sense of being whole. Without lions, Africa will lose a certain magic, and without which we lose the very soul of our land in many ways. Lions are uniquely ours, as Africans, why we ever consider letting them go extinct. American, Europeans, and most other people in the world have no lions, we are unique. Killing them is just bad business, we would be destroying one of the few things we have that no one else has but everyone wants.
Some people are of a view that lions and other big cats kill a lot of other animals so if they disappeared maybe prey animals would have a bigger chance of survival.

Without lions, for example, large prey starts to increase in number and medium- sized predators like hyenas increase as well. Both start suppressing medium prey, the antelope for example, and soon you get a monoculture of large prey, like buffalo, and they stop moving because they no longer fear lions and when that happens they increase their own parasite load and collapse. So if you take lions out of the formula, soon enough you end up with no wildlife at all. The big cats keep the prey numbers in check.

How much effort do you put into stalking these fierce creatures?
We do not see them as fierce creatures at all. Imagine; you drive or walk through the forest and suddenly see a bright emerald or diamond at your feet. It is like a gift from the gods, it is precious and you are so lucky. That is the way we feel when we drive along and catch a glimpse of amber in the shadows and it is a leopard or lion. The car door rattles with the vibration of roars. It is so precious.

How do you keep away from danger?
We are in no danger of fierce things. They are in danger of us. 600 male lions each year are shot by trophy hunters mostly from the USA who come to Africa and destroy our wildlife to hang on their walls at home, and they do it for fun, even call it sport. We use every effort we can, every skill we have to find our subjects. We look at the ground, see and follow footprints, track them day and night or hear monkeys’ calling and follow them to a leopard, and in all the time we have worked with big cats we have never been in serious trouble with them, but by contrast have been attacked by elephant four times, buffalo once, I have crashed three aero-planes, had malaria four times, 20 scorpion stings and three snake bites. Big cats are the least of our problems.

I have seen films where you followed lions across river systems, driving your car through chest-height water — what is it like?
Very amazing. We have seen over 2,000 kills now and recorded each one, either on film or stills or just scientifically, so we know big cats really well and we know how to play safe. Generally, we are situated about 20 to 30 paces from the action. It is fairly chaotic. You never know where it is going to come from and end up. Often, the action breaks closer to you than the ideal.

Which of the big cats’ species do you enjoy the most while filming?
I like male lions, because they are the most iconic animal. But we both cherish the times we spend with leopards. Look into the eyes of a tiger and you see the same wildness that represents all big cats.

When you look in their eyes do see any emotions?
We are very careful about how we deal with what are obviously emotions within these animals. So we never say, ‘This animal is feeling sad, the other hate,’ and the like. ‘We don’t know about animal emotions, but any mother who loses her young must be going through something.’ So it is very, very obvious that these animal have emotions, but exactly what forms those emotions take is where we have to draw the line.

Do you think some animals are better than humans? Leopards and lions, after a traumatic situation, they instantly sleep unlike humans. Humans turn to addictions.