Interview: Watching the Last Lions with Dereck and Beverly Joubert
More than 90 per cent of the lion population has disappeared from Africa over the past 50 years, according to some estimates. A film to be shown on the National Geographic channel in France charts the story of one family of lions. RFI spoke to the makers of The Last Lions about their journey into the world of one of the most ferocious predators known to man…
How do you feel being here in Paris, an urban jungle, given that you normally spend 300 days a year in the wilderness?
Dereck: Well it’s fantastic, we’re enjoying Paris it’s wonderful. The food and the wine are fantastic obviously! But it is a bit of a culture shock for us, it always is when we come out of the bush into civilisation. If Paris is civilisation! Its fun, we’re having a lot of fun.
Beverly: On our first day as we were walking around the city we were in search of all the lion statues and photographing all the lion statues. We were wondering if there were more lions in Paris than in Africa. Because this is one of our main concerns, but of course the lions in Paris are stone lions. So it’s very important that we start looking at the last remaining lions that are in Africa because they are still alive.
You’re here to promote your film The Last Lions. You spent two years filming it and two years editing it. It must have been a great adventure.
Beverly: It certainly was a great adventure. Of course we had to try and get under the skin of the lions. So it meant we were living their time. We would be up at four in the morning have to cross a major river and often Dereck would get absolutely drenched. I would climb to the roof of the car! Then our day would start. Early before light we would start searching for the lions and for the buffalo herd. Often we’d find the buffalo herd first. Then the lions would be close by in proximity and then we’d circle. Then sit and wait for 16 to 18 hours a day.
Dereck: It really is a privilege. It’s an adventure. We’re getting up close to these animals. We get to know individual lions like Ma di Tau, the main character of this film. Getting to understand them and develop trust with them as well. I think that’s what we enjoy most of all. I think that we do get close. We try not to get too close that we’d interfere because this is a documentary and our lives have been built on documentary work. We use a range of lens. We’ll use a 600 millimetre lens to stay far back. Our objective is to get into the mindset, get into the skin of these animals, but without interfering. Some of the time I’m out of the vehicle on the ground for low-angle shots. Sometimes the animals come towards us. But before we start a project we work with a lion pride, or leopard, or whatever the animal is, for many weeks, we’ll work six weeks before we start filming. Just so that the animal gets used-to us, so that it’s no longer interacting with us. We often say that we’ve failed once, the first time, the animal interacts with us. If it charges and it really does interact with us, then we’ve failed a second time. So our philosophy is very different to those of other presenters who go out there and try and get charges, get interactions. Ours is exactly the opposite.
Beverly: We truly believe that we have to have total respect towards the animal. That’s the only way that we’re going to be able to get the true family story. It’s a little bit like coming into your home. You really have to be a fly on the wall to be able to capture the essence of who that family is. That’s what we have to do when we’re out in the field. We don’t want to be obtrusive at all. We want nature to play out. That’s the only way we have been able to, over 30 years now, capture footage that is totally unique. Because the animals aren’t interacting with us.
During the documentary you attach a lot of different feelings to the mother and lion cubs. Is this a real true story or just a collection of footage that you’ve managed to stitch together?
Dereck: It would be a lot easier if we could just stitch them together! No, it’s a true story in as much as you can take two and a half years work and condense it into one and a half hours. So there’s obviously the hand of man, the hand of the director and the editor within that. But it’s certainly a representation of the true story. We followed three main stories for this film and then chose one. Just by natural attrition two other stories disappeared and we focused on the one. But yes, these are the real characters. This is really what they did. Ma di Tau’s story is a real story and the plight of that individual character is real. The sentiment and the emotional attachment of these animals is also real and I think that many scientists today steer away from the fact that animals can have emotions. We don’t believe that that’s right. We think that animals do have emotions. I think that emotions are an element of who we are and an element of every life form. Certainly the more sentient life forms. There seems to be no evolutionary reason that emotion would have evolved only for us. I think emotion is something that there are different versions of. I believe that the main character in our film, Ma di Tau, when she loses her cubs, for instance, has some kind of emotion. I don’t know what it is. We’re very careful in the script and within the story to say she’s going through something here. Something that we would probably say is great sadness if it was in our lives. We’re very careful to not cross that line and say she’s feeling really sad right now. I always say this emotion is something very close to human sadness. Because we don’t know. In fact, I don’t even know what you feel when you say you feel love, if it’s the same thing that I feel, when I say I feel love. We just don’t know these things. Certainly that divide is greater in the animal world.
In one part of the film we see that Ma di Tau has to leave her cub because its back is broken. You don’t interfere?
Beverly: That is a policy that we’ve made for ourselves over a thirty year period of filming in the field. We are documenting what is happening. We are observers. We’re not there to interfere at all with what’s happening in a natural situation. These are in national parks or in wilderness areas. But the only time we will intervene is when it’s a man-made situation. So poachers, an animal in a snare, a bullet wound, anything like that. We’re very strong on that policy. But even, and I can tell you it was the hardest thing to witness, to watch this little cub, what you see in the film, is the first moment that we saw it. We had no idea either. So the shock that you get in the film is the shock that we get in the film. I think that allows the audience to understand that these aren’t just ferocious beasts. They’re not ferocious beasts. Their ferocity is just to kill. We don’t have to go and make our own kills. They are going through immense struggles, immense hardship, immense struggle for survival. So what you see was the shock and horror, and we had that pain as well. Being in the field was the hardest thing because we got to know the pride, we got to know the female, and we got to know the cub a little bit. The emotional drain that happens to us in the field is immense. Way more than the physical drain we take on a daily basis.
Dereck: A testament to the reality of the film is that that scene is in there. Because we could never pre-plan a scene like that. I mean, we wouldn’t be that heartless to even envisage that something like that would happen for us to film. When we filmed that scene. In fact, I filmed it and Beverly said to me, ‘why are we filming this’, because we’d never use it. I just said, ‘let’s just cover it for the record’. It’s obviously too intense to use in a film. Later on we said, ‘but actually, that is the film, that is the reality of this’. When you look into that lioness’ eyes when she has to make that tough choice you can see real emotion. I think we were looking for that emotion and this is an example of it, an example of animal emotion.
Beverly: It’s very important to say that it’s a lion drama. That the film is filled full of excitement. It’s a roller coaster of emotions all the way. This is life. We all on a daily basis have somebody die in a family or hear about a death worldwide. I do think it is very important that we all accept that animals are going through the tragedies that we are going through.
Besides cinematically telling the story of lions, this film’s also about the disappearance of lions in Africa. How many lions are left in Africa?
Dereck: The reason that we did this film is to be the platform for the conversation about lions, the real conversation. When Beverly and I were born, 50-55 years ago, there were about 450,000 and today there’re 20,000 lions. If you follow that trajectory, you’ll soon realise that these lions, at that curve, will only last in the wild for another 10 or 15 years. So we have a real problem and we wanted to use this film as a platform to say that. In many ways, not that we planned it, the journey of Ma di Tau, the main character in this, is a journey of survival, in protecting her cubs and her pride. These could well be, the cubs growing up, the generation of the last lions in Africa. We’re very concerned about that. All the proceeds from this film National Geographic are giving directly back to big cat conservation, which is fantastic. But there doesn’t seem to be any reason for us any more to just do a film for art. All of our work now is art for a cause. Because we just don’t have time to be self indulgent.
Beverly: I think it’s important that we have to look worldwide at what is happening to the top predators. When we take the top predators out of the system we are actually totally throwing those systems out of balance. So we’ll very soon lose those wilderness areas. For instance, there are only 200 snow leopards left, and tigers, worldwide, there’s about 3,200 and in India perhaps less than 900. Looking at those numbers, we’ll see Africa in a few years time equaling those numbers. Then it’s too late. We don’t want to wait until it’s time to reintroduce because then I think you’re on your back foot. If we could protect them now whilst we have them in the wild that’s what we need to do. Leopards have gone down to 50,000 and there were 700,000 50 years ago. It’s alarming. It’s every single cat species. Cheetahs have gone down to 12,000. We do have to take action now. We felt after all the work that we’ve done over a thirty year period of filming that if our films had made the difference and we’d stopped the decline then we would have been successful. But National Geographic made us Explorers in Residence five years ago and that gave us chance to look back and go, ‘this is what we have done, we might have inspired the people that do understand and love animals but what about the rest of the world’. Now we have to create that awareness and it really is through the Big Cat Initiative.
What are the principal causes of this disappearance?
Dereck: There are a number of causes and each region has a different cause. But in essence we’ve got seven billion people on the planet today and we’re generally intolerant of big large predators that kill and eat us and our livestock. There are flashpoints at all of the fringes of lion and big cat ranges at the moment. But that’s not it. About half the problem, in my estimation, is with the cattle cultures of Africa, where there are cattle and lions hunting cows. That’s something that we have to solve. We have to learn how to live tolerantly with big predators in our backyard and that’s a major obstacle. At the same time we’ve got greed and corruption and all sorts of other things. For instance we’ve got a hunting industry that shoots about 600 male lions a year for trophies. We’ve got 20,000 lions left, so maybe 4,000 male lions. We’re shooting them at a rate of 600 a year. That’s just not sustainable. It’s like tennis, its recreation. It’s to make us feel good. Its fun to shoot a lion and it shouldn’t be fun. First of all, that talks about who we are. But we shouldn’t be killing these animals when they’re in such decline. That’s really a Western problem. At the same time we’ve got an Eastern problem where lions are being turned into lion bones to be turned into wine. For medicinal uses in the East. About three years ago South Africa issued permits for 44 lions to be turned into lion bones. Now 1,000 lions a year are being turned into lion bones. This is not sustainable. If we were trying to exterminate big cats we couldn’t be doing a better job.
Beverly: We’re certainly not trying upset various cultures because we understand that often these beliefs are from ancient beliefs. Like in the Asian market. That an animal product has a medicinal purpose or it has a power. Whether a sexual power or curing cancer. What we have to do with the Big Cat Initiative and with our films is to try and debunk those myths. So that we can move forward and it’s very important that we have to stop the trade. Without stopping the trade we can’t stop the killing. Without stopping the killing there will be extinction.
In 2009 you created the Big Cat Initiative. Can you tell us more about the work it does and its objectives.
Dereck: We had a look back at our careers as Beverly said earlier on. We just said, ‘look we’ve done all these films, books, talks – surely we’ve been effective’. We looked back at our lives and we’ve still seen this dramatic decline in cats and so we needed to do something else. We went to the National Geographic Society and started the Big Cats Initiative. Primarily as an emergency effort to try and make a difference and try and stop this decline. The first part of that is focusing attention on it. The Last Lions and Big Cat Week is all about that – focus attention. Killing big cats is like an addiction. The first thing you have to do is recognise that you’ve got an addiction. What we’re saying to everybody is, ‘there’s a real problem here and it’s a collective problem’. The next phase is how we solve that addiction. We’ve got a number of programmes within the Big Cats Initiative, about 20-25 projects throughout Africa where we funnel money directly into projects in seven countries where we can actually see a positive change on the ground with projects that can save cats immediately. I did the numbers a couple of weeks ago. At the moment I think that we’ve made an impact of about 150-200 lions a year. We’ve got to scale this up to 4,000 lions a year. Otherwise we’re going to lose them.
Could you give us an example of some of your initiatives?
Beverly: What we need to remember is that in each country the initiatives are very different. Because the cultures are very different and the environment’s very different. But for instance in Kenya, the Maasai are cattle ranchers. If a lion kills a cow what they want to do is retaliate and kill the lion and even possibly the cubs. So what we have done in that situation is give them compensation. They get a little bit and after a three month period if they haven’t gone to retaliate and kill the lion or lioness, then they would get full market value. So they would still be gaining the full value for that cow. That is starting to work. In that particular area I think around 40 lions were killed yearly. Now there haven’t been any lions killed in that area. It’s compensation, a little bit like insurance. Across the way in Tanzania it’s a little bit different. What we’ve managed to do, with one of the scientists that has taken on the incentive, is they’re building secure bomas [livestock enclosures] and they’re teaching the Maasai how to have better animal husbandry. How to secure their cattle at night time, that’s when the lions are coming to kill the cattle. In that area over a couple of years no cattle have been killed so no lions have been killed. In other areas there’s poisoning. Some of the local people are lacing a carcass and poisoning the lions that come and feed. There, it’s about awareness. It’s education. Trying to help the local people understand that that lion is more valuable alive, than dead to them.