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Meet the adventurers: award-winning wildlife filmmakers Dereck and Beverly Joubert

As part of National Geographic’s Big Cat Week we catch up with the filmmakers to discuss the state of the world’s big cats and learn how Jade Eyed Leopard — their latest film — aims to galvanise audiences to help safeguard the future of Africa’s wildlife.

Published 1 Feb 2021, 08:00 GMT
Dereck and Beverly Joubert

Dereck and Beverly Joubert are award-winning filmmakers, National Geographic Explorers-in-Residence and wildlife conservationists, who’ve been filming, researching and exploring in Africa for more than 35 years.

Photograph by Wildlife Films: Val Joubert

You’ve been making films for more than 35 years. Are you ever surprised by the events you witness?

Dereck: I don’t think you ever get used to it. Every film we make and every book project we take on surprises us. We’re in a perpetual state of discovery. That’s what keeps it fresh for us. 

For better or for worse, what’s changed about the landscapes and wildlife of Africa during your time working in the field?

Beverly: A huge amount has changed. In the early days, we were infatuated with what we were seeing, but at the same time doing science on the numbers. In a 50-year period, Africa has lost about 95% of its wildlife — it’s alarming. If you look at individual species — big cats, for instance — there have been huge losses. There used to be around 450,000 lions: now they’re down to less than 20,000. Leopards have gone from 700,000 to fewer than 50,000. Cheetahs have plummeted to 7,000. That’s what’s worrying us — are we pushing these animals to extinction? That’s why we’re compelled to document them. Hopefully, by watching our films — like Jade Eyed Leopard — audiences will be encouraged to help protect them.
Dereck: Our voices are bigger too. Go back 30 or 40 years and we were just talking to a small circle of friends or scientists about this, but today, with the connectivity of the online world, more people know what we're doing, and more people follow and support us.

What’s the most pressing issue faced by Africa’s big cats right now?

Dereck: There are a number of threats. But the short-term and immediate threat is that, as we approach the eye of the storm of the Covid-19 pandemic, a second pandemic is emerging — a huge wave of poaching. We’re seeing a massive spike as people who have become destitute are forced to support themselves, while others have taken the opportunity to participate in organised, illegal transnational crime like trafficking. Really, the issue is poverty. Tourism, which was a massive $50bn revenue stream [over £36.4m] into Africa, has suddenly gone. And of course, there have been cutbacks in ranging staff. This is why we started Project Ranger, with the help of National Geographic, to keep rangers in the field. Long term, we have to work on elevating peoples’ livelihoods to eradicate poverty. What National Geographic is so good at is educating people around the world and informing them.

In a 50-year period, Africa has lost about 95% of its wildlife — with leopards, once numbering around 700,000, now reduced to fewer than 50,000.

Photograph by Wildlife Films

Could you tell us a bit more about your Big Cats Initiative, and why it’s important?

Beverly: We started the Big Cats Initiative in 2009. That, really, was an emergency intervention, much like what we’re doing now with Project Ranger. The aim is to take action — action in the field, working very closely with communities, rather than just focusing on the science. Right now, we have around 150 projects in 27 countries. The individuals on the ground are doing phenomenal work, and a lot of that’s based on education. They’re educating communities and schoolchildren to help them understand that live animals are a future investment — they’re worth way more to them than a dead animal. They’re working with them to practice better husbandry, to prevent them losing a cow to lions or leopards. That’s vital, because cattle are an important investment for them. We have to remind them that the environments are part of these investments too. So really, the Big Cats Initiative is teaching people how to live side by side with big cats, to ensure their future protection.

In your opinion, where’s the most delicate place on the planet right now?

Dereck: The two poles. Losing ice, as a result of climate change, has huge ramifications. It’ll affect the coastlines of Africa. It’ll affect New York City. The air we breathe. The water we drink. The fisheries around the world. It’ll affect the big cats in Africa — there’s science on this. If the fisheries change in remote places like Ghana, fishermen look inland. As they move into the interior to hunt — so that they can feed their families — the first thing they’ll do is kill the big cats. 

What advice would you give to someone wanting to see Africa’s big cats?

Dereck: You should definitely come. Africa needs the dollars. Africans need the dollars. Conservation does. Communities do. Choose your safari company very, very carefully. You can pay between $50 and $100 (£36-73) a night, jump in the back of a minibus, get rattled around and cause massive habitat damage. Or you can pick an authority and do it carefully and quietly, with a company that has sustainable values. Research a company that gives back to the communities and doesn’t just send your money offshore. We’re associated with a company called Great Plains Conservation, where one third of the revenue goes to conservation, one third towards growing the conservation footprint, and one third goes to communities. For me, that’s the ideal combination.
If it’s your first time in Africa and you’re really keen to see big cats, then Botswana and Kenya are the best places to go. I’d caution people that once they do come out, they’ll fall in love and become repeat offenders. I must say, though, if your plan is to visit Africa to see a big cat and then to shoot it, I’d ask you not to come. Don’t hunt our wildlife — bring a camera instead.
Beverly: I’d recommend Duba Plains Camp in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, where we’ve shot a few films, including The Last Lions. It’s remarkable because it’s all on an island, so it’s easy to see big cats. I shouldn't say anything is easy, but there's a lot of interaction. Mara Plains Camp in Kenya is phenomenal too, and Mara Nyika Camp, our base for filming Jade Eyed Leopard. It’s a unique area, I believe, because of the abundance of rainfall — around 200 days of it a year — so there’s a lot of wildlife, and a lot of prey that attracts the predators. Botswana’s Selinda Reserve is an excellent spot as well.

You filmed Jade Eyed Leopard over three years. What was your most exciting moment? 

Dereck: Definitely the thermal imagery. Seeing a leopard bring down a big Grant’s gazelle was thrilling — it was a big kill. But our main takeaway from the film is seeing these creatures have personality. Getting up close to Toto, the little leopard, finding her underneath the deck of the tent, and observing her interactions with her mother, Fig, in one of the camps on Mara Plains. Witnessing that intimate relationship was the real highlight for us.

“One change we need to make for the planet? We need to renew our vows with nature.”

by Dereck Joubert

What are you most proud of in terms of your filming career?

Dereck: We’ve been talking to people who’ve seen Jade Eyed Leopard, and many are bowled over by the intimacy we were able to portray. They were emotional, finding that their personal journeys had been reflected through Toto and Fig’s relationship. In non-human subjects, this is quite hard to capture, so I’m most pleased about the storytelling and the connectivity we’ve created for the audience.
Beverly: It’s very hard to say I’m proud of anything, because I’m always so acutely aware of how these areas are being devastated. Sometimes I think, ‘My gosh, have we failed?’, and I get emotional and tearful. Taking the personal out of it, I’m proud of the fact that our tenacity has driven us forward through the trauma and psychological damage of witnessing what’s happening to the planet. We need to nurture ourselves — to release this responsibility and turn it into action so we can make a difference and keep speaking out. That tenacity is the thing we all need to hold on to.

How do you find inspiration for your films?

Beverly: Looking at the films we’ve produced with National Geographic, inspiration has often come from new life. There’s a theme of meeting a new cub or elephant calf, whatever the species. There’s an understanding that we have a responsibility to protect the new generation. We’re their parents in the field, so to speak. It’s a responsibility that sits with us and National Geographic — how can we help to protect them?
Dereck: In a wildlife documentary like this, it’s a single image. I’ll see something and I’ll fall in love with it and then build a story around it. Sometimes it's a character we came across — Toto having been born under a deck, for example. We're working on something on wildlife crime at the moment. That’s inspired by that deep anger Beverly was just talking about. Inspiration comes from different places, but most of all, my muse and inspiration is Beverly.

In your opinion, what’s the biggest change we all need to make right now to help the planet?

Beverly: Fossil fuels — our world relies on dirty energy. How can we clean up the dangers we’re moving towards? How can we halt global warming? How can we prevent a future pandemic? We need to clean up our act.
Dereck: It’s simple: we need to renew our vows with nature. 

Jade Eyed Leopard is part of Big Cat Week on National Geographic WILD, which runs from 1-5 February. Dereck and Beverly Joubert are award-winning filmmakers, National Geographic Explorers-in-Residence and wildlife conservationists, who’ve been filming, researching and exploring in Africa for more than 35 years.

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