“Humans need a renewed contract with nature.” An iconic conservation duo consider Africa's post-pandemic future

Film-makers Derrick and Beverly Joubert co-founded National Geographic's Big Cat Initiative. Since then they have faced challenges, hope – and a near-fatal wilderness attack.

Published 28 Jan 2021, 16:04 GMT, Updated 29 Jan 2021, 17:10 GMT
“As conservationists we will use every media and medium to be able to speak out for ...

“As conservationists we will use every media and medium to be able to speak out for these animals.” Dereck and Beverly Joubert speaking at the National Geographic Society Headquarters in 2016. 

Photograph by Randall Scott / National Geographic Society

Dereck and Beverly Joubert are National Geographic Explorers-at-large, conservationists and award-winning filmmakers. Both South African-born, after marrying in 1983 they began a career defined by raising awareness of the challenges faced by African wildlife. In 2009, they co-founded the National Geographic Society's Big Cats Initiative, which funds on-the-ground research and conservation projects to safeguard big cats and their critical habitats.

In 2017, whilst filming at night in the Okavango, the Jouberts were charged by a water buffalo. The horn of the animal impaled Beverly under her arm, then continued though her shoulder and throat, and into her skull – stopping just millimetres away from her right optic nerve. Dereck, suffering a broken pelvis and rib fractures, fought the buffalo off and spent 11 hours trying to stabilise Beverly, who was bleeding heavily, before they could reach an emergency room. She lost a third of her blood and suffered over 20 bone injuries, but after reconstructive surgery and rehabilitation was able to return to the field. 

Today, as well as continuing to make documentaries – such as Jade Eyed Leopard, which premieres as part of Big Cat Week on National Geographic Wild – the Jouberts are working on initiatives to protect vulnerable species and local economies during the tourism vacuum created by COVID-19.        

Dereck and Beverly Joubert will be taking part in a special live UK Q&A hosted by Chris Packham on February 1st at 6PM GMT. Join in and ask your questions on National Geographic UK's Facebook page here.   
 

You co-founded the Big Cats Initiative with the National Geographic Society in 2009. What has made you proud in the years since – and what hasn't? 

Dereck Joubert: We’ve been able to amplify these animals' plight. I remember [once] being at the National Geographic HQ and saying ‘there’s a huge problem with big cats’, and everyone saying, ‘what, really?’ Now, almost everybody knows about it. And certainly all the scientists in this space agree that these animals are in freefall. That’s a big achievement. 

“In the 80s we would speak out about losing some beautiful male lions and nobody seemed to care.” The Jouberts in the 1990s.

Photograph by Beverly Joubert

Beverly Joubert: The encouraging thing is that there are now so many people reaching out. After the atrocity of Cecil the lion being killed in Zimbabwe [in 2018] social media went crazy, and that’s not something that we’ve been used to. In the 80s, we would speak out about losing some beautiful big male lions and nobody seemed to care. Creating the Big Cats Initiative, taking that emergency action, got grantees out into the field and doing the work, and putting a lot of focus on education and working with the local communities. I think I’m most proud of those communities, for embracing the fact that this is their heritage; they want to be ambassadors for their area, and they are the conservationists of today. That is a phenomenal success: creating a little army of warriors that are truly passionate that a live animal is worth more to them, and their community and their country than a dead animal. (Read: An inside look at Cecil the lion's final hours.)

In your documentaries, you become very close to the animals you film – giving them names, identities, seeing them grow up. Yet your stance is never to interfere if the animal is in jeopardy. That must have given you some very difficult moments over the years... 

Dereck: There is a fine line between anthropomorphising, and finding the identity that the animal has naturally. So yes, we do name the animal. But we don’t give them identities; they have those already. They have these personalities and they have these characteristics that are uniquely theirs. So we were able to very early on in our career say that we are dealing with another being, a lion, leopard, for example – and that we cannot accept it into our lives, or tame it, or make what we want of it. And by the same token we can’t interfere in its own natural cycles. So having crossed that point, we had it as our ethical baseline, from 40 years ago. We will not interfere – but we will intervene if it’s [distress] is a man-made cause: a snare, or bullet, or spear. And as a result, while we take a hard-line sometimes emotionally to see a young lion cub with its back broken struggling through the wild, we won’t step in and [euthanise] or try to save the cub – if it’s a natural death. And it’s hard to do that.    

'Toto', the young leopard whose formative years the Jouberts chronicled in their documentary Jade Eyed Leopard.

Photograph by Luke Cormack / Wildlife Films

Beverly: And, I think living and breathing it and being there for every second of that day with those animals is vitally important – as we are then allowed to take the emotion that is really affecting us, and bring it into the film. And I think it’s only if we’re successfully doing it right will you care. That really is the goal of our films: to illuminate these animals but also to shine a light on them as being individual creatures that we do need to protect. We know now that over a 50 year period we have lost 95% of African wildlife. We know that. So it’s only by looking at it in a more personal way, and for you to have empathy towards little Toto in Jade Eyed Leopard, say, will you actually want to take that action to find out more. As conservationists we will use every media and medium to be able to speak out for these animals. (Related: What are the Big Five? Meet Africa's most iconic wildlife.)

You've witnessed your share of mortal combat amongst animals in the wild. Then in 2017, you became part of one yourself. That could have changed your perspective in so many ways. Did it? 

Beverly: It was a freak accident; there was no intention, or malice involved. When I was lying on the ground, bleeding out during that first 11 hours after Dereck had saved me from the buffalo, the woman who was helping us get ice and water said ‘oh, my gosh – we’re going to have to kill the buffalo.’ Even in my drowsy state I said ‘no, it wasn’t the buffalo’s fault, don’t.’ And so I think that was already me forgiving and not holding any grudges or hatred or fear. It took Dereck 18 hours to get me to an emergency room, and once I was there I had 8 months of rehab. We had been working on a film in the Okavango, and my desire was to be right there. I think in the first two weeks I said to the professor who was in charge of the surgeons who were trying to put me back together, “on the 21st (which was in about a week’s time) I have to be back in the field.” And he looked at me with big eyes and said, “I’ll see what I can do.” Obviously he knew that it wasn’t going to be possible but that desire to continue was really important. 

A herd of water buffalo in Botswana's Okavango delta, where the Jouberts attack took place in 2017.

Photograph by Faruk BUDAK / Alamy

Dereck: That's true. It was a great disaster, and adventure. And I think one of the techniques I used on the day whilst trying to save Beverly’s life was to normalise it. We’re explorers – every now and again, something’s going to happen. And we’d had a free ride up until that point. And so this was now something that adjusts the balance a little. And I think being calm, and quiet... and not overly dramatic that Africa turned its back on us. The minute we got back in, we went straight back in to the same place. We walked on the ground, touched the earth, and asked permission from Africa to be [allowed to] fit in again. You need to rationalise it to a degree but not over dramatise it. And I think keeping a sense of humour through all of it helped. 

Beverly: You could think of it as a slap in the face – from the buffalo certainly – and I think if you look for meaning in that, it’s perhaps urgency. Perhaps we have all been too complacent. The COVID-19 pandemic is a slap in the face. That if we don’t do something now, it’s going to be too late.

On that subject... given the situation with wildlife tourism on pause and poaching rising, are you afraid for conservation in post-pandemic Africa?  

Dereck: My biggest fear is that things go back to where they were. I don’t think we [humans] were doing that great before – there was massive poaching, people were taking advantage of nature all around the world. We’ve had a very, very difficult relationship with nature. These horrible intersection points that have resulted in us jamming bats and pangolins into the same cage, hunting animals, shooting them, selling their bones, burning their forests. I don't want to return to that. I want there to be some lessons learned from this and to have a renewed contract with nature. The pandemic has made many people around the world more reflective, and more appreciative of nature – the birds, the clean air. It’s almost like renewing our vows: we should not throw everything away, but look at the best parts of what the pandemic has imposed on us and adopt those into our lives. There has been massive, massive attrition and poaching. We’re calling it a second pandemic.

(Read: to stop the next pandemic, stop disrespecting nature.

“My biggest fear is that things go back to where they were.” Dereck Joubert on location.

Photograph by Wildlife Films Botswana / Beverly Joubert

“We’ve had a very, very difficult relationship with nature. I want there to be some lessons learned from this pandemic.”

Dereck Joubert

Beverly: We started an emergency intervention called Project Ranger in March 2020, which is when African countries started to close their borders. No tourism was coming into the areas, so many areas lost their normal revenues. Communities felt hopeless, with many areas destitute. So we needed to ask, what is the future for these areas? [When the pandemic is over] will they still be in a vast reservoir of wildlife and in turn, their future economy? Or will they end up being sterile land, and not a future economy? So that’s really what we’re looking at: how to keep those men and women in the field, to protect the areas, and to help communicate the right facts back to those communities so they’re all part of protecting them, and future conservation. Because if they don’t, they are going to suffer in years to come.

(Read: The impact of poaching in Zimbabwe and Zambia: what happens next?)

You seem to combine marriage and an intense working relationship pretty well.

Beverly: I think we're each other's conscience in many ways. We’re together 24/7, we assist each other in everything we do, and we have individual roles – which is important or else we would be falling over each other and not achieving anything. We never had children, which was intentional, as we wanted to be out in the field together. And every project we take on is a little bit like a child, in that we nurture it to the point of being able to release it to the world. I believe that’s what keeps the excitement in our relationship is because we’re passionate about what we’re doing – and we see the urgency right now of needing to escalate it to protect these areas. 

“I think we are each other's conscience in many ways.” Beverly and Dereck Joubert filming in the field.

 

Photograph by Dereck and Beverly Joubert / Wildlife Films

Dereck: And we manage our relationship well. You know how some people say they’re totally in-sync all the time? I manage by being slightly out of sync all the time. I think if you’re in sync, when you’re both up, it’s great – but when you’re both not, it doubles down on you. You’ve got to pull together, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. The worst thing for me, with my personality type, would have been to fall in love with someone, then to go to work at 8am, not see that person all day, then come back at night. That’s not the life I desired.

So after such a long career in the wild, what's your happy place? 

Beverly: Being out there. For me nature it is soul food. It replenishes the soul in every way. It creates joy. Humanity around the world that has been divorced from nature and doesn’t understand it, they come on a safari and they rediscover who they are.

Dereck: my happy place is wherever Beverly is. [Laughs.] Well, there is a wonderful place in Kenya where we’ve developed an underground hide, where you sit within touching distance of elephant’s feet as they move around it. I can tell you that doing meditation to elephant’s rumbles is as good as it gets.

Dereck and Beverly Joubert will be taking part in a special live UK Q&A hosted by Chris Packham on February 1st at 6PM GMT. Join in on National Geographic UK's Facebook page here for a chance to ask your questions.   

Big Cat Week, a special series of programmes, starts on National Geographic Wild from 1 February. The Joubert's new film Jade Eyed Leopard premieres on Tuesday 2 February at 9pm. 

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