Filmmaking couple keeps an eye on cats
September 27, 2007
ASPEN Imagine living in the bush of Botswana, Africa, spending all your time tracking and filming predators in the wild and evading poachers who might shoot you just to prevent you from contacting authorities.That’s how Dereck and Beverly Joubert spend their time – they wouldn’t have it any other way.And they are hoping local filmgoers will share their enthusiasm with the screening of their two most recent films, “Living With Big Cats” and “Eye of the Leopard.”The Jouberts have been recognized for their contributions to conservation policy and humanity’s knowledge of animal behavior, with 20 films, six books and numerous magazine articles.With five Emmys and a Peabody to their credit, they were recently named National Geographic Explorers-in-Residence, an elite group whose ranks number only 13 worldwide.The couple, who are South African by nationality and have nearly three decades of filmmaking experience, have been living in Botswana for the past eight years and studying what they believe is the most important part of the African ecology – big cats, or specifically, lions and leopards.”They really are the most iconic symbol of Africa that you can think of,” said Dereck Joubert.And, chimed in Beverly, “All our large predators are endangered,” from encroachments by land-hungry humans and such activities as farming, cattle ranching and the expansion of settlements.
Dereck said there are only about 20,000 lions left in the world, which he called “completely shocking.” He said that due to the complex social order followed by lions, when a male lion is killed, whether by a foreign trophy hunter or a Masai warrior, that order is upended. Other male lions often raid the “pride,” or group, killing and eating cubs and even lionesses. The loss of a single male lion, he said, can mean the deaths of up to 30 others.”Living With Big Cats” is a sweeping film that looks at the lives of both lions and leopards, which both require vast amounts of terrain for their survival and which both stand at the top of the food chain in an uneasy shared dominance with other predators.Narrated by Jeremy Irons, the film gives a behind-the-scenes glimpse at how the Jouberts work and how their philosophy influences the choices they make in the wild.”Eye of the Leopard” is a much more intimate piece that depicts three years of the life of a young leopardess, Legadema, from the time the Jouberts discover her at the age of eight days or so – a discovery that also figures in “Living With Big Cats.”Her story begins when she is 3, and hears the “cub call” that her mother always has used to find Legadema, and continues through a series of flashbacks from the cub’s first days to her graduation into adulthood.The viewer encounters Legadema’s sire, captured in the act of killing a buffalo as well as mating with Legadema’s mother. We also watch as Legadema’s mother teaches her about the ways of life in the bush, rife with dangers from a nearby baboon troop, lions that roam the area, hyenas and other leopards. The film captures the trials and tribulations of the mother-cub relationship, including a rift that leads to their parting company, and the harrowing encounters with other wildlife.Speaking of the Jouberts’ philosophy and their advocacy for the preservation of big-cat habitat, Beverly said, “You actually can’t have a balanced ecosystem without predators.”She pointed to this country’s experience with wolves in Yellowstone National Park, where the reintroduction of wolves triggered a reversion of the park’s ecology to its historic status, as an example of what happens when predators are removed.
The couple also are advocating the creation of “wildlife corridors” connecting various preserves as a way to maintain genetic diversity.As to whether their philosophy is being accepted in the nations of Africa, Dereck said, “It’s starting to catch on.” He expressed the hope that such thinking can overtake a prevailing idea that only wildlife that produces tourist income for the country is worth preserving, which he termed “a philosophy of, if it pays, it stays.”In following and documenting the lives of their subjects, the couple work diligently to prevent the cats from becoming overly habituated to the filmmakers’ presence.But with Legadema they found that the leopardess was curious enough that, once she was used to them, she would sometimes approach and physically touch them with a paw.”We realized how unique and unusual it was,” Beverly said, and so began filming “behind the scenes” with an eye toward making a film centered with Legadema as the star.Although they discontinued their constant surveillance of Legadema, they still keep an occasional eye on her.
“She’s still living, and we have been following her,” said Beverly, which is how they know she lost her first litter of cubs.But, Beverly said philosophically, “She’s so young, so she’s still learning.”The Jouberts said they rarely fear for their personal safety, and never from the cats. Derek said he has contracted malaria four times, been stung by scorpions 20 times, been hit by an elephant a few times, and has contracted countless internal maladies, “but we’ve never had a problem with the big cats.”They have had trouble with poachers, who once were rampant in Botswana and who became aware that the Jouberts were helping the government curb poaching by keeping an eye on the poachers. And they have been in the line of fire from poachers’ guns at least once, although they feel it was inadvertent because they were camouflaged as they filmed a herd of wild buffalo that were the poachers’ probable targets.They said poaching has dropped off as the Botswanan government tightened control of its borders and began actively battling the illegal activity.The couple carry no weapons with them when they go back in the bush.”Our weapon is our knowledge,” Beverly quipped, to which Dereck added, “and Beverly’s wits.””Living with Big Cats” screens at 5:30 p.m. Friday at Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House.John Colson’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org