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Two male lions at rest near a herd of African buffalo in Botswana's Selinda Reserve. (Photograph by Beverly Joubert/National Geographic Creative)

How to Save Africa’s Lions

Living and working side by side, National Geographic Explorers-in-Residence Dereck and Beverly Joubert have been exploring the wilds of Africa for more than 30 years.

Together the husband-and-wife team have published scores of books, magazine articles, and scientific papers related to conserving the big predator species we all associate with Africa: lions, elephants, and rhinoceroses. But the primary medium for sharing their conservation message with the world has been documentary film.

I had a chance to talk with the award-winning filmmakers about the ongoing threats to Africa’s big cats—and the pioneering conservation tactics that are giving these veteran wildlife warriors hope for the future. Here’s what they had to say.

Bret Love: You’re both from South Africa. How did you first meet?

Beverly Joubert: We met in high school, but didn’t start dating then. Dereck went off to do compulsory military training. When he came back, we went into the field and started exploring together almost immediately.

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Wildlife filmmakers Beverly and Dereck Joubert pose with a lion pride early in their careers. (Photograph by Beverly Joubert/National Geographic Creative)

We worked in a lion research station in Botswana in 1981 and fell hopelessly in love with the wilderness. We did nocturnal work there for 15 years. Working at night takes its toll on a relationship because of sleep deprivation, but we [hung] in there.

That was the beginning of our filming career and this strong commitment we have to the Okavango Delta.

Dereck Joubert: It’s been a very romantic life. We fell in love young and have been in love ever since.

How have things changed for Africa’s lions since those early days?

Dereck: I don’t think we’re at the place yet where we can say that things are improving. [In fact,] we’re seeing massive declines. I suspect that we’re losing five lions a day on average, and the lion-bone trade is increasing rapidly enough to be considered a real threat to the species.

Tell me more about the lion-bone trade.

Dereck: Actually, they’re [marketed] as tiger bones, not lion bones, and used in a ritualized way in wine to celebrate Chinese New Year [because they are thought to have medicinal properties].

The lion-bone trade is a new threat that could have been avoided. No one bought lion bones until five years ago, when South Africa [began] allowing permits to sell the bones of about 30 animals. By now it is up to over 1,000 a year.

In addition to the relatively new demand for lion bones, what are the biggest ongoing threats to African lions? 

Dereck: The major threats are all about even, in my opinion. Habitat loss is increasing. As humans continue to grow in number, this is an inevitable threat.

Cattle conflict is about one fourth of the reason lions are declining. By working with the large cattle cultures, we can do something about that.

Trophy hunting kills 660 male lions a year. That is not sustainable or ethical: It’s ignorance and greed.

Are lions in decline everywhere in Africa?

Dereck: In some [places], like in Botswana, we have stable populations. In southern Kenya, at ol Donyo Lodge, we’ve seen a marked difference by supporting predator compensation in the area and working with the [local] Maasai. We went from losing 40 lions a year to losing none in the last few years.

One way we have engaged with the community has been by creating the Maasai Olympics, where warriors compete in track and field athletics rather than going out to kill a lion. It’s been a huge success. Maasai are now saying that the time of the lion-killing spears is over.

However, we still have to convince Thailand, China, and Vietnam to stop consuming lion bones, and we have to convince Western hunters that shooting a male lion for fun is not acceptable.

Through your company, Great Plains Conservation, the two of you are buying ecologically vital tracts of land—many of which were formerly used for hunting—to create, restore, and expand wildlife corridors in Africa. Why is that important? 

Dereck: As you isolate species into smaller areas, the risk of extinction becomes higher and higher. We commissioned Duke University students to look at where big cat populations were 15 years ago, ten years ago, five years ago, today, and where they might be five, ten, and 15 years out. Then we overlaid a similar map of where human populations would be. We use the big cat populations as indicators of how well the wilderness might be doing.

[First] we chose big ecosystems that we wanted to play a role in protecting, then we looked to see if there was any land in the extension of those ecosystems that was not well protected. We’ve got a “hot list” of 20-25 places that we will be targeting…so that we can play a role in creating buffer zones [around] Africa’s national parks.

What role do you see ecotourism playing in conservation efforts in Africa, particularly in regard to providing an alternative to hunting tourism? 

Dereck: Let’s take Botswana’s Selinda Camp Reserve—which we bought [about] eight years ago when 80 percent of its revenue was from hunting and 20 percent from ecotourism—for example. We shut down the hunting [there] on day one and immediately went into the red, but eventually clawed our way out of it.

The wildlife numbers [at Selinda] were seriously depleted. We saw just one leopard and 50 buffalo in six years. Hunters would shoot lions to the point where whole prides collapsed. [First] they shot the male lions, [which] were replaced [in the pride] by inferior lions. And they shot those, too. Then the cubs grew up and started mating with their mothers and grandmothers until the entire system collapsed.

[Before we took over the camp, the previous owners had] hired 12 people for five months of the year and attracted 12 hunters a year to come shoot wildlife.

Now, we hire 180 people from the local area for 12 months a year. The trickle-down effect is that we put food in the mouths of about 2,500 people.

How are big cats in the rest of the world faring?

Dereck: Tigers and snow leopards [in Asia] suffer from a common enemy, which is habitat loss and the associated loss of prey. As slash-and-burn farming practices creep forward, toward wild lands, man moves ahead and poaches for meat. Prey numbers fall and marginalize predators to such a degree that the slash-and-burn comes along late enough to no longer really matter. Again, it’s [a matter of] ignorance and greed.

Cougars [throughout the Americas] suffer from a similar, but Western, version of progress, but with a larger degree of livestock conflict and fear from people that these big cats are out to get them for some reason.

What can ordinary people do to support big cat conservation?

Dereck: People can become more knowledgeable and informed, and cause an uproar when things are handled [in the] wrong [way]. The Cecil the Lion incident is a prime example [of that].

They can go to StopHuntingLions.com, part of our Great Plains Foundation site, for information on hunting and other problems with lions, and spread the word on social media. We post scientific studies that reveal why hunting is bad, where donated money goes, which organizations promote hunting but accept anti-hunting donations, and which airlines allow dead animals to be transported. The National Geographic Big Cats Initiative website is another good resource.

People can lobby their senators and other lawmakers to ban big cat trophies from being allowed into [their countries] and lobby the Far East to stop the illegal wildlife trade. If we can stop the demand, we can stop the killing.

Though you are best known for your work with lions, your latest documentary, Soul of the Elephant, finds you paddling from one end of a river to the other in a remote corner of northern Botswana. What was your goal with this film? 

Beverly: Our main goal is to show the essence of who elephants are. It’s almost like an ode to elephants. If people don’t fall in love with them and realize we should be caring about them, we’re going to lose the elephant population at a much more alarming rate then we already are.

What is it about elephants that humans connect to on such a deep level? 

Dereck: I think more and more people are understanding that elephants are intelligent, gentle, sentient beings that have emotions, language, empathy, and all these things we like most about ourselves. The reason why I think elephants sometimes trump the big cats is because they don’t do anything perceived to be nasty, like killing young zebras. They have all the things we love about wildlife and family. I think they sell themselves.