Wildlife documentaries are not in short supply. In addition to long-running weekly programs like Nature on PBS and major television events such as the BBC’s Life, there are now entire channels devoted to showcasing seemingly endless playlists of films about the natural world. In this flood of footage, top-quality wildlife films can be hard to find.
While skimming through the channels one night several years ago, I cam across an utterly arresting image. A lioness, chest-deep in water, charged towards some unseen target. I had never seen anything like it before. I sat there, transfixed, as she and other lions tried to make a living in the unusual landscape of Botswana’s Okavango Delta, an inland floodplain starkly different from the classic views of Africa I had previously seen. The film was Relentless Enemies, one of the latest documentaries by the husband-and-wife team Dereck and Beverly Joubert.
The Jouberts have been filming and photographing Africa’s large predators for decades. Their work is unparalleled. The films they have created are not general portraits of lions, leopards, and hyenas, but stories about individuals, clans, and prides that allow rare glimpses into the natural history of these animals. Dereck and Beverly have an intimate knowledge of the animals they film, and they have actively worked to help preserve these creatures so that future generations will know that parts of the world are still wild.
A look at the story in Relentless Enemies from a different angle, the Joubert’s latest film is the theatrical feature The Last Lions. It tells the story of a mother lioness who struggles to ensure the survival of her three cubs in the middle of the Okavango Delta. I was fortunate enough to be able to ask Dereck a few questions about the making of the film before he and Beverly returned to Botswana, and the email interview is presented below. I will post a review of The Last Lions – as well as the accompanying book – later this week.
Brian Switek: How did the story at the heart of The Last Lions come to you? Did you have the story in mind from the beginning, or did the story become apparent as you followed the lions?
Dereck Joubert: Last Lions came partly out of our time with the lions on Relentless Enemies. We came to know the characters and their stories. We decided to revisit this area and a part of the story but on a big screen as a theatrical show at the scale it should be seen.
BS: Much of your work has centered on the animals of the Okavango Delta. What made you decide to carry out so much of your work there?
DJ: Firstly, we love Botswana. Its the magical sweet spot of communities that get it, wild places and a great government with sound policies. The Okavango is the best of the best. But we do our work as much, maybe more so for the conservation messages we deliver rather than the ease of working environment. The Okavango does have great wildlife and big cats, but we wanted to tell a story that engaged people on a personal level and motivate them to come to the aid of our efforts in the Big Cats Initiative.
BS: Both you and Beverly obviously film more than the public ever sees. How long did it take to film The Last Lions, and about how much footage did you take in making the documentary?
DJ: We spent just over 2 years filming, 2 years editing, and we shot about 100 hours of material I think, and editing down to 90 minutes. It is a war of attrition in the editing room deciding what scenes need to go in and what doesn’t.
BS: How did you both get your start in wildlife photography?
DJ: We started as wildlife researchers and conservationists. Filming evolved from this passion.
BS: Are you self-taught wildlife photography experts?
DJ: Pretty much. I studied my brother as an artist, and he worked tirelessly struggling with composition and form and understood as a kid what worked and what didn’t. Probably the hardest thing about this is making the images in such a way that they engage and tell stories within stories. And when to get out of the way of all that as you make the film. Sometimes trying too hard to apply the lessons of a film school gets in the way.
BS: I know the film is called The Last Lions for a reason. What is the biggest threat that lions are facing?
DJ: We did this film as an expression of the kind of stories to be told around the last of the lions left on Earth. 50 years ago there were 450,000 and today we have just 20,000. On that scale, these are the last of them. Its an extension of the conservation about these lions and that if we have just a handful of the last lions we need to define and understand what we are going to do with them and about their status. The film stimulates that conversation and leads us to action. Its a cause film and we need it to be a big cause, not a little meaningless one. If we lose lions, we lose so much…
BS: The people who are going to be watching the film are obviously far-removed from where the last lions live. What can they do to help save lions from extinction?
DJ: First of all, they can go see the film and encourage more people to see it. Anyone who sees this will understand that these animals are real characters with personalities just like all of us. If more and more people (in fact, most people in the world) see this, I think it will lead to a new perception of the great cats and not that they are just predators. So see the movie and even buy a ticket for a kid to see the movie. Then, of course, any issue needs money, so there is a message at the end of the film to text the word LIONS to 50555 for a $10 donation to our foundation (The Big Cats Initiative) that will go directly into projects to save these animals on the ground. Anyone who wants to donate more can find out how on the Cause an Uproar site.
This is going to take a lot of money, a lot of education and a lot of people thinking the same way. It is also going to require land, anti-poaching, ideas on how best to do this and in essence an army of ambassadors for big cats around the world. Kids can challenge other classes to raise money for Big Cats Initiative or write a letter to “Dear Lion Sir,” and we will send a book of these letters to all the leaders of countries in Africa that still have lions.
All the best,
Top Image: In the flooded oasis of the Okavango Delta, a lioness charges. Photo by Beverly Joubert and courtesy National Geographic.