This Iconic Wildlife Photographer Is Determined to Save Big Cats

In honor of World Lion Day, Beverly Joubert shares how she's working to protect these crucial predators and the wild spaces they call home.

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Beverly Joubert’s ceaseless passion and talent have made her a heroine in the field of wildlife photography. She is a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, filmmaker, photographer, and cofounder of National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative.

Together with her husband, Dereck, she has devoted more than 30 years to photographing and documenting the plight of African wildlife. The pair live in Botswana and travel through Africa, working tirelessly to help preserve the continent’s wild spaces and the animals that call them home.

In celebration of World Lion Day, we spoke with Beverly about her love for big cats, what makes them so important to African ecosystems, and her latest work to protect these predators.

What first drew you to study and protect big cats?

Big cats are the iconic and romantic flagships of the wild, and their animalistic intensity is spellbinding. Protecting them has become our lifelong mission.

Why are big cats so important?

They drive the savanna ecosystems in a way elephants drive change in forests and hippos do for the swamps. For example, we show in our film “Tribe versus Pride” that lions keep large prey animals on the move. During periodic attacks by lions, the antelope run and this action churns up the ground, so it accepts rain into the soil and feeds grasslands.

Truthfully, a planet without the rasping sound at midnight of a leopard call in the forest or the cough of a male lion’s first syllable in a roar at dawn will be an incredibly lonely one. A world where the wild has been tamed out and made safe and dull would be meaningless to many of us.

What are the biggest threats against these cats?

Ignorance and greed. The ignorance of how damaging safari hunting can be to these cats. CITES [the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora] still allows 660 male lions a year to be killed basically for fun or to feed egos. Massive extinguishing of predators to make way for crops and livestock by people who have forgotten that big cats help develop heathy grazing for their cattle. In addition, the trade in bones started by South Africa and a nasty morally bankrupt industry that now threatens all big cats, from jaguars to tigers.

How does media help with the efforts to protect these cats?

Media helps us fight the major influence of ignorance. If you watch a film or read an article, you cannot claim ignorance any more. You cannot unlearn something like this, so then we just need to deal with greed. (Related: Why Conservation Tourism Matters)

What’s a typical day like for you in Botswana?

Today we woke at around 4:30 a.m. and, after some battery trouble, got out across the river and found a male lion at dawn. We filmed him for an hour and then followed tracks of a different pride. We wanted to catch up with them because yesterday we watched the pride leave an injured cub behind. We found that they had gone back for the cub, but she won’t make it, so we spent some time in reverence—reflecting on how some give up their lives in a wild system and it is okay, even necessary, to feed the definition of the wild.

Later today, we will follow up on the logistics of our next rhino relocation and write letters to donors who may help us with that relocation. We also have a team of anti-poaching experts flying in for discussions with Dereck. Then, as the light gets better, we will go out and film in the magic hours and into twilight. I will be photographing and collecting some sound.

After dark, we will head back to our camp, eat, catch up, sleep, await the dawn, and listen for lion calls.

Do you form bonds with any of the animals you study and protect?

Yes, very often. It would be hard not to. However, experiencing deep bonds does not give us license to interfere and meddle in natural processes. Often we feel deep sorrow, like when we saw a cub we have known for five months slip away and get left behind, but it is natural.

You and your husband, Dereck, work closely together on these projects. What is that like?

I don’t think there is actually another way to do what we do. What we have developed, over time, is a connection on a cellular or soul level that fulfills us in the best meaning of that word. It may be love and companionship, but it goes beyond that for us. We work hard at making it work, as well not taking anything for granted, staying excited and surprised and engaged in each other—but this isn’t difficult because we share the same basic interests and passions.

Tell us about the Maasai Olympics.

It was a discussion with the elders that sparked the event. How does one engage with the warrior age group of any culture, not just Maasai, and redirect that pent-up energy into something positive, rather than negative?

In the U.S., that may be football. In Kenya, we discussed changing from lion killings to field and track. It is working so well that lion killing has all but been replaced.

How is your relationship with the Maasai elders and warriors?

Extremely good in that we are able to interact honestly and find solutions like this one. It helps that through our tourism company, Great Plains, we hire over a hundred Maasai, and, because we also help sponsor the event through Great Plains Conservation and the Big Cat Initiative, they feel we are a part of the solution.

What message do you hope viewers get from watching “Tribe versus Pride”?

That preserving cultures is important and solutions come from respecting that culture. Having an understanding that for everyone, for nature, lions, the environment, and our collective future, things have to change. Lion numbers are now around just 2,000 in Kenya. With 2,000,000 Maasai, they could easily extinguish this vitally important population of lions, but through this initiative, this partnership, we could start a process of hope.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Lauren O'Brien is a digital news writer at National Geographic, covering topics related to culture and exploration.