TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Wild lions, hyenas, rhinos and elephants are the stars of the movies made by my guests, Dereck and Beverly Joubert. The husband-and-wife team have been making wildlife documentaries for over 25 years. They're based in Botswana and live in tents and their vehicle, which is customized to enable them to film animals close-up.
They work with the National Geographic Society and are the society's explorers-in-residence. The Jouberts have a new film called "The Last Lions," which follows a lioness who is left on her own to take care of her cubs after the father of her cubs is killed in battle.
When she and her cubs are separated from their pride, desperate for food, she makes her way across the delta's waters to an island called Duba that was formed naturally only 20 years ago and had never been populated by lions but was home to herds of buffalo. Eventually, she leads a new pride on this island.
The Jouberts titled this film "The Last Lions" to reflect their fear that wild lions are becoming extinct. There were about 450,000 lions in the mid-20th century, when the Jouberts were born, and there are now only an estimated 20,000 to 25,000. The Jouberts have written a book, also titled "The Last Lions," illustrated with Beverly's photos.
Beverly and Dereck Joubert, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Now, your film has a kind of main character, a lioness. How did you decide to focus on her story?
Mr. DERECK JOUBERT (Filmmaker, "The Last Lions"): Well, Terry, you know, we actually picked up on a couple of stories on the day when we started this project and the series of projects. And her story was the one that prevailed.
So this is a character called Ma di Tau, which means mother of lions. But we also followed the pride and the males as well. But just, the more and more time we spent with them all, she just got stronger and stronger as a story arc.
GROSS: So the main character is a lioness named Ma di Tau, a name you gave her, and the father of her cubs dies after a battle, which we see. And he's fighting with other lions. Would you describe the fight?
Mr. JOUBERT: Well, it's - where the film picks up, we arrive, and we start our story on this fateful night when everything changes for her and for her male. But marauders come in from the outside, move into the...
GROSS: Marauding lions.
Mr. JOUBERT: Yes. Marauding lions come in from the outside, move into her territory, their territory, and fight with them. You know, these territorial battles are dramatic and often end up in death, one way or the other. And so that's where we start our story.
And certain things are put in place that day that completely change everything for her.
GROSS: So would you describe the actual fight?
Mr. JOUBERT: Yeah, you know, what actually happened was that first of all, two males came in, and her mate, the male, her male mate, couldn't do anything but defend his territory. So he went straight in and tried to confront these interlopers.
And very often, that works out quite well because there's a certain strength of being in control of a territory that sways the sort of fight in your favor but not in this case. And so these two males surrounded him and attacked him quite brutally, and their females came out of the darkness, as well, surrounded Ma di Tau, attacked her and very nearly killed her. It did some serious damage to her shoulder, actually.
But it went on for about an hour. It was quite a dramatic fight, one of the most dramatic fights we've managed to film in 28 years.
Ms. BEVERLY JOUBERT (Filmmaker, "The Last Lions"): And it was incredibly intense because it all happened at nighttime. And so, you know, it was hard for us to capture every aspect of it, especially struggling with the dark.
GROSS: How did you get to film this fight, and where were you situated as you were filming?
Mr. JOUBERT: Well, generally, we're situated about 20 or 30 paces from the action. With things like this, it's fairly chaotic. You never know where it is going to come from, where it's going to end up. Often, the action breaks closer to you than the ideal.
In this case, it did happen around about 30 meters away from us, and it was in the first starting of the light of dawn but not quite enough to register without some sort of assistance from lights. And then as the fight progressed, it got closer and closer to dawn, and we got better and better images.
But again, Terry, just chaotic stuff happening all around us, around the back of the vehicle, on the side, in and out of focus, all over the place. And we were lucky to capture anything at all.
GROSS: So you're in your specially equipped vehicle, and you're, like, 30 meters away from where these lions are fighting each other. How do you know you're safe?
Ms. JOUBERT: Well, we know we're safe because the action is all for a purpose. And it's not about us being in their territory. It's definitely about them fighting over a territory, and they're fighting, you know, across their own species. So it's really lions fighting lions.
We don't have doors, we don't have a windshield, and we don't have a roof except a little canvas, you know, over it. We believe that our knowledge over 28 years has prepared us to keep safe. And also it's kept us being good filmmakers without ever challenging the animals, without wanting them, you know, to give us that incredible aggressive look.
We feel that the luxury of time will eventually give us that look, but we never, ever want to threaten an animal. I think it's really all about respect at the end of the day, and we have an ultimate respect, you know, for these animals.
GROSS: You mentioned that threatening look. The look on some of the lions' faces as they're fighting, it's such a completely different look than when they're just, you know, at peace. And it's so ferocious. I mean, you literally see, like, their jaws pulled back and the teeth coming out, and it's really quite frightening.
Mr. JOUBERT: Well, it is, and it's designed to be, and this is the great thing, actually.
GROSS: Maybe I should say the word awesome, too.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: It's really awe-inspiring, yeah.
Mr. JOUBERT: It's certainly designed to be frightening because it doesn't really serve anybody, any of the lions in a battle, to get to the point where they actually make contact, get injured and die because both the victors and the vanquished could get injured fatally within this.
These are big animals with sharp teeth and claws, and so all of that stuff is great. All that posturing, all their grimacing and growling and attacking, into the throat area in the case of males that are covered by manes, the function of it largely is display. It's very, very rare for that display to then upgrade into a point of contact. And that's why this was such a rare thing for us to capture this fight in this early, early part of the film.
GROSS: Later in the film, we see lions preying on buffalo because the lions need food, and they can eat the buffalo. But if a lion kills a lion, will the lion eat the lion that it killed?
Ms. JOUBERT: No, the lion will not eat another lion. And in fact, often the lions won't even eat other predators. If they kill a hyena, they won't eat it, either, unless they are in absolute desperate times, you know, maybe at death's door. Lions really don't have to eat other predators.
GROSS: But, I mean, if they're dead already, they still won't eat them?
Mr. JOUBERT: No, they don't. They - first of all, other meat-eaters don't taste great, which in many ways favors us. We're also meat-eaters, generally. And so we're not on the normal prey menu item, basically, for these big predators.
So the big predators, their preference is to hit buffalo, to kill all the normal herbivores and very, very rarely another meat-eater of any kind. The meat just doesn't taste good.
GROSS: That's interesting. If you're just joining us, my guests are Dereck and Beverly Joubert, and they've been making wildlife films for decades, and their new film, "The Last Lions," has just opened, and they also have a companion book of the same name, published by National Geographic, and they are explorers-in-residence at the National Geographic Society. They're based in Botswana.
So, you know, in the film, as we've been describing, the lioness that you follow, her mate is killed in battle. And so she has to survive with her cubs, without a mate. What does that mean for a lioness to no longer have a mate?
Mr. JOUBERT: Well, the unusual part of this entire scenario is not only does she not have a mate and a protector and the burden of these three cubs, but she also doesn't have a pride. And that's very, very unusual for lionesses.
Usually, you'll get a pride of eight lionesses, and then they pool their cubs. So each one of them has cubs, they look after them up to a certain point, and then all of them look after everybody's cubs.
So there's this double layer of protection against something going wrong for these big, ultimate killers because they are in a very, very dangerous profession, so to speak.
If they get injured, they can - if they were solitary, they would lose those cubs very easily. And so for her, the stakes were doubly high. She had lost her mate and her protector, and she had to go out and hunt -very, very dangerous activity - and make sure that she didn't injured long enough for her to have her cubs vulnerable and in jeopardy.
GROSS: So she basically stakes out new territory.
Mr. JOUBERT: Yeah, exactly. So she can't stay in this territory any longer. It's been dominated by the incomers. And she has to find new territory. And for her, that means new territory in an unknown place, where there are no lions, and that is across the Duba River onto the Duba island itself, and that's the beginning of this great adventure.
GROSS: So she tries to attack buffalo, and there are a lot of buffalo on this island that she has crossed into. And so the buffalo have horns, and the lioness has teeth. How do the horns and teeth match up as weapons?
Ms. JOUBERT: Well, actually, that is the problem for the lioness. Those horns are incredibly sharp, and if she doesn't attack from the back, she will be ripped apart.
In fact, in Duba, not so long ago, we saw a whole pride of lions being wiped out by buffalo purely because they weren't hunting from the back. They were hunting from the front.
GROSS: It's like they didn't know how to do it yet?
Ms. JOUBERT: Exactly. They hadn't specialized in buffalo, and they were probably hunting, you know, various other animals. But when they were confronted with only one prey species, it was a challenge for them. And of course, they severely - lost every member except one. So that was a problem.
So her initial stages was having to learn how to hunt, and of course right through the film, she studies them. You see that she's watching, she's studying them, and she tries to take the calves because it was in the calving season. It was fortunate for her that it was calving season then. And she starts off with them.
But of course eventually, in the finale, she is hunting a male buffalo bull.
GROSS: My guests are wildlife filmmakers Beverly and Dereck Joubert. Their new documentary is called "The Last Lions." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Dereck and Beverly Joubert, and they are wildlife filmmakers. They've made films about elephants and big cats. Their new film is called "The Last Lions." And there's a companion book of the same name. They live in Botswana, and they are explorers-in-residence at the National Geographic Society.
One of the, I have to say, kind of heartbreaking sequences in the movie: The lioness that we've been talking about, she returns to one of her cubs, and he - his back is broken. And he can only, like, drag himself with his front paws, and the rest of his body just lies limply as he drags himself. And she finally turns away and leaves him.
And what is your understanding of why the lioness leaves her disabled cub behind?
Mr. JOUBERT: Well, it's a moment in the film. And it is sad, heartbreaking, although those sort of things have been going on for three and a half million years, the three and half million years that lions have been in their present shape and form in Africa. So it's very hard for us to judge and to say what she was going through is wrong or what her reaction it was wrong.
But what was interesting to us from the scene, and fortunately, the end of the film has a happy ending, which sort of counterbalances this, but what was interesting for us from the scene was that at that moment, we had this incredible opportunity to have an insight into the potential that these animals have real emotions.
You've seen the film, and so you know that there's a moment in there where this lioness, on camera, blinks twice, closes her eyes and then swallows deeply.
And while we can't anthropomorphize, we can certainly understand that there's something going on and that I think it would be arrogant of us to actually think that we have the exclusive rights on emotions. Animals have emotions, as well, we just don't understand what form they take.
But for us, this moment in the film was much more about her reaction, her struggling with that inevitable maternal instinct to stay and to take care of the cub when she knew she didn't have that capability.
GROSS: Did it cross your mind that, well, maybe you should do something to help save this cub? Or would that have been crossing a line for you?
Ms. JOUBERT: We made a policy years ago that we're out there to document. And that's what we do. And we'll never intervene when it's a natural situation. So when it's nature playing out its game, without human interference, then we are completely hands-off and all we do is document, even though it's painful.
But if we see a situation that is a man-made situation, for instance, an animal falling into a man-made waterhole or a snared animal or poachers shooting at animals, we do, we go straight in. We've had this happen before where poachers have been shooting into elephants, and, you know, not even thinking about our own safety, we've driven straight towards them, straight, you know, to confront them and hopefully that they will stop shooting.
These poachers on that particular day knew that they were in the wrong, and they ran to the river, and they dropped their weapons and jumped into a boat.
GROSS: Now, you know, we were talking about the lioness returning to her cubs and having to abandon a cub who had a broken back. The pride of lions that you followed, you say they killed over 90 cubs in about five or six years. Why would lions kill their own cubs?
Mr. JOUBERT: Well, we don't know. But if you look at the opposite end of that argument, which is had they not killed all those cubs, this isolated island in the middle of Botswana in the Okavango, Duba Plains, would now have 100 lions on it.
So clearly there has to be a natural weeding-out of some of the animals, certainly some of the predators.
The fact that it's so unusual for these lionesses to kill cubs within their own pride is indeed a mystery to us. We don't know why they are doing it, and it's happening today, actually. So we don't know how long it's going to carry on and if this is just something unique to this area or to this pride.
Again, I don't think that we have exclusive rights on weirdness.
GROSS: And would - in this situation, does the lioness kill another lion's cubs or kill her own?
Ms. JOUBERT: No.
Mr. JOUBERT: No, they never kill their own cubs. They always kill another lioness's cubs. I also think that it could be a function of the newness of the pride. They're sort of feeling each other out. There's anxiety within the pride. Certainly it's an intense, intense situation.
It might be the fact that they're - on a daily basis, they're in these intense situations with the buffalo. We don't know. But every now and again, when we do film a mother lioness coming back and finding her cubs killed, she sometimes eats those cubs, which is strange. But yeah, it's a mystery.
GROSS: Now, do lions attack elephants?
Ms. JOUBERT: Yes, lions do attack elephants, but this also only happens in various areas. And in fact, it hadn't been filmed until I think it was around about 1995 that we captured it in Botswana, in the Savuti region, and it was because there was an intense drought.
A lot of the animals had either died in the area or moved out, and it was just breeding herds of elephants that were moving from one water system, one river system, to the other that was about 70 kilometers apart.
And in this area, the lions had to adapt. If they didn't adapt to attempting to hunt elephants, they, too, would have died. And that's exactly what happened. Over this period, we captured them hunting only at nighttime, and they would first of all bring down some of the babies, and then later they were bringing down a 12-year-old, and then we eventually captured them trying to bring down a 21-year-old cow.
GROSS: Yeah, now, here's what I'm wondering. You know, you've seen the world of nature through the eyes of lions and through the eyes of elephants, and lions have attacked those elephants. So, like, do you have shifting loyalties when you're watching these fights, depending on whether the film is about elephants or whether the film is about lions?
Mr. JOUBERT: Well, no. You know, we've been doing this for a long time. We've been doing this for 28 years, nearly 30 years now. And so we've -we're totally comfortable with our emotions and the fact that we can be emotionally distraught, one way or the other.
But all of these behaviors have been going on for so long. In the case of the lion-elephant things, there's good evidence that lions in a previous form, as saber-teeth Smilodons, were hunting mammoths. And so these sort of behaviors have been going on a long time.
What our role is, is to be there, be in the right place, get it in focus, document it and then maybe go one step further and, through the writing and the script and maybe some of the camera work, show people a little bit about what it was like to be there on the day.
Ms. JOUBERT: Absolutely. And I can tell you, Terry, we do take an immense amount of pain. The emotional drain is huge. But often, we look at - the only reason that we can bring it into the edited version is because we've gone through that emotional drainage.
And so I believe it's probably good for us, although on the day, it truly does hurt. It's like losing a family member. And it doesn't matter if it's a lion or if it's an elephant. It truly hurts.
We have total respect for the end of an animal's life. We would never celebrate and go: Yay, we've got it. You know, isn't that wonderful? We totally do a little mourning ritual within ourselves just by being silent and being very respectful.
GROSS: My guests are wildlife filmmakers Dereck and Beverly Joubert. Their new documentary is called "The Last Lions." They'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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This is FRESH AIR. Im Terry Gross, back with wildlife filmmakers Dereck and Beverly Joubert. Their new documentary, The Last Lions, follows a lioness who was left alone to feed and take care of her cubs after the cubs father is killed in battle with other lions. The Jouberts have a companion book, also titled The Last Lions. The Jouberts live in tents in Botswana and film from their customized vehicle. They work with the National Geographic Society and are the Societys explorers-in-residence. You can see Beverly's photos of the lions were talking about on our website, freshair.npr.org.
I know you don't like to anthropomorphize in your work. You don't like to protect human emotions onto the animals. But some, you know, a few of the films critics have pointed out that the narration seems to do just that, to attribute some human emotions, you know, in a kind of human kind of narrative to the story of the lions that you're following.
Mr. JOUBERT: Mm-hmm. Yeah. And I think that there's probably a misunderstanding of anthropomorphism then. What we are very, very careful about doing and have been through all of our films and in this one as well and, in fact, it goes through a rigorous fact checking process at National Geographic, is being very careful about how we deal with what are obviously emotions within these animals. So we never, ever say and I'll never write into a script, I'll never say, this animal is feeling sadness and this animal is feeling hatred or any of those sort of things.
What I tried to do very carefully is say we don't know about animal emotions, but any mother who loses her young must be going through something. And so I like to take people up to that point and then do a handover because it's very, very obvious that these animals do have emotions but exactly what form those emotions take I think is where we've got to draw the line and stop short. Anybody who thinks that humans are the only animals on the planet that have emotions clearly has never had a dog or a cat or a bird.
GROSS: Whats the biggest risk you took for a shot in your new film The Last Lions?
Mr. JOUBERT: Well, we have a fairly risky life so the biggest risk is sort of off the charts. I think that probably it was in following the lions across the river systems. This is a very, very tricky area to operate in. It floods up and the lions have to swim a lot of the time. To get unique shots we would push our vehicle in, push it to extremes, and on one occasion I know we actually just had a new vehicle made for us and we pushed that in, got deeper and deeper and deeper until eventually the water was sort of mid-chest heart on me as I was sitting driving. And then we hit deep water and got stuck, had the vehicle lodged in the sand there and had to swim out to try and get a winch cable across. But the riskiest part of that was that two days before we had been filming some of the biggest crocodiles in the area right at that spot. So there was no way of knowing where these crocodiles were, and I've got to tell you that every little thing that brushed against my legs as I was swimming out was a big croc in my mind.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: So don't really know for sure what it was?
Mr. JOUBERT: We have no idea. I'm sure they were little fish.
Ms. JOUBERT: But, in fact, I often joke about that day because Dereck truly did turn the vehicle into a submerged submarine. And it was hair-raising for two reasons: We were losing all our camera gear. All our camera gear went down with the vehicle and then, of course, we were stuck in the water ourselves.
And so first of all, before we even tried to get ourselves out, we first had to save the camera gear and that was hair-raising because we had to open up these silver boxes that are attached to the vehicle, let more water flood down all over them, and then throw them to the back of the canvas roof that was sticking out. And, of course, we had no idea.
You know, two million dollars worth of camera gear, we had no idea if we were going to save them or not and, of course, to have an insurance in that amount of gear the way we live we wouldn't be able to afford it so we didn't have insurance on it. But it was very fortunate that we saved at least 85 percent of the gear.
GROSS: Was a lot of your footage within those cameras? I'm assuming they are digital cameras.
Mr. JOUBERT: Just a days worth of shooting, so not that much.
GROSS: Okay. Yeah.
Mr. JOUBERT: So we were lucky in that regard.
Ms. JOUBERT: Yeah. In fact, we often joke that what we really lost was our pride more than anything else and the lion pride.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. JOUBERT: Dignity and pride.
GROSS: So Beverly, while Dereck was swimming out to try to find a cable to pull the vehicle back or to pull the vehicle out of a ditch. Yeah?
Mr. JOUBERT: This is a very, very good question, Terry.
Ms. JOUBERT: Ill...
GROSS: The question I was going to ask before you praise it was where were you, Beverly?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. JOUBERT: Yeah. This is a good question.
Ms. JOUBERT: Well, I was in the vehicle. I had climbed to the roof of the vehicle because obviously, you know, putting all the gear up was very important. I was fairly dry, but I was documenting. You know, it's so important when situations like this happen to document. Often weve lived through the most hair-raising situation and haven't managed to capture it on film at all. And so this was my moment and my excuse to not be in the water.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. JOUBERT: Beverly sort of brushed over the one part of that sentence there, she was dry.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: So Dereck, you actually swam to shore, found a cable and pulled out the vehicle from the rut it was in?
Mr. JOUBERT: Yeah. Well, rut is an understatement. Yeah, we eventually managed to get the vehicle out of there. It took us a day but, and these are the sort of things that were up against all the time. And ironically, Terry, you know, its not the big things that will get you, it's the little things. And in our lives thereve been a lot of scorpion stings, snake bites, malaria - I've had malaria four times. So it's really those sort of things that will do you in. And it's ironic, you know, we've spent more time with lions than we spent collectively at school, university or with our parents...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. JOUBERT: ...and weve never been scratched by a lion, so obviously we were in our comfort zone here.
GROSS: Beverly, you do the audio for the movie.
Ms. JOUBERT: Yes, thats right.
GROSS: And the sound is great. For example, like the almost bark of the young cubs, especially the young cub whose back is broken and whos kind of calling to his mother, they're such like interesting and emotional sounds. And, of course, theres the growls during at the beginning of fights when the lions are really showing how tough theyre going to be and trying to scare the other animals. How do you mic them?
Ms. JOUBERT: Terry, it is mainly with directional mics, like a 416 Sennheiser or an 816 Sennheiser. And, you know, I'm in the vehicle, while Dereck is shooting I'll be doing the recording and then, of course, also doing the photography. So I sort of juggle between the two. And there are beautiful sounds. The lions are communicating amongst each other all the time. If the lions have all been sleeping together for hours we always know that we'll know when they get up, even if we've taken a nap because there's that little call, that social call when they rub heads and greet each other. And then, of course, when the cubs are calling each other it's almost a, what I suppose, you know, cats are doing a meow. But its their form. It really is this quite, sometimes can be quite aggressive and sometimes quite whiny when the cubs are demanding milk from Mau di Tau, but she is always aware of where they are through their communications and they're always aware of where she is because shes communicating with them most of the time when they're in close proximity.
Obviously, when she goes off hunting she doesn't communicate with them at all. And then I think the fascinating with the audio is when the lions start roaring and are communicating sort of five kilometers or more with another pride, and that's really to say this is my territory, back off, you can't come in here.
GROSS: And do you ever - is the audio always as good as the film quality and vice versa or do you ever end up taking a growl that sounds better from another scene and putting it in a scene that you're using?
Ms. JOUBERT: You know, often with the audio it is a challenge to get the audio at all times, especially when there is a huge amount of activity happening and I might be assisting Dereck to try and capture it, or as well as trying to capture a still image as well and then sometimes I would have to do that. But majority of the time we would need to get what is there on the day otherwise, we might be miscommunicating what the lions were saying on the day. Even though we don't understand lion language we do try and get it as accurate as possible.
But often, you know, I could never get the tiny rustle of the grass or those immense splatters as they're going off in the distance, so that's when we'll bring in a Foley artist.
GROSS: My guests are wildlife filmmakers Beverly and Dereck Joubert. Their new documentary is called The Last Lions.
More after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If youre just joining us, my guests are Dereck and Beverly Joubert. They are wildlife filmmakers and their new film is called The Last Lions and it follows lions in an island in Botswana and they're based in Botswana. They're also explores-in-residence at the National Geographic Society.
Now your movie and your book are called The Last Lions and you're concerned that lions may be becoming extinct. You'd like to see them put on the endangered species list wild lions. You say when you started doing this kind of work, documenting large cats, there were about how many lions then?
Mr. JOUBERT: Well, when Beverly and I were born roughly 50 years ago, there were 450,000 lions and now those numbers are down to around 20,000. That represents a 90-95 percent decline. And so the reason that we took on this book and the film was to try and get that message and the preciousness of these individual lions that are now only 20,000 strong in front of a bigger audience, in front of people around the world so that we can start having this conversation. Unless we start talking about this, these lions will be extinct within the next 10 or 15 years, and that's not something that we're prepared to see happen on our watch.
GROSS: Of the 20,000 lions that are left why only 4,500 male?
Mr. JOUBERT: Well, thats the normal breakdown. So theres a greater drop-off rate of young males. So they're born at about 50-50; one male, one female in the cub litter. But by the time the young males and young females leave and go into their nomadic phase, the young females are better prepared to hunt, the young males are less compared to hunt and so they wander off and more young males die. When those males come back into the system as resident male lions, the general breakdown is that you might have - two male lions to a pride of eight or nine, 10 females. And so that sort of settles then at that stage. And so, youre right, of the 20,000 weve got between 3,500 and 4,000 male lions left.
GROSS: So are you saying that the lionesses are more of the hunters than the lions?
Mr. JOUBERT: Always are. Yes. The lionesses are better adapted to hunting than males are.
GROSS: Why is that?
Mr. JOUBERT: Again, a lot of it has not to do with the fact that males are lazy. I would never go on record saying that.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. JOUBERT: But they're, you know, they've got these enormous black manes a lot of the time and that just makes it harder for them to creep up on other animals for a start. The manes make them about a certain percentage, I think it's 12 percent less efficient because it keeps them hotter and they've got relatively small hearts. The manes, of course, are vitally important to them because it protects their necks and their jugular vein structures doing fights. But the manes weigh against them in the equality of hunting prowess.
GROSS: Now in terms of conservation you do your part in various ways, not only by making the films but one of the things you say you've done is to purchase lion and leopard hunting permits and then tear them up. Is there like only a certain number of hunting permits that are allowed to be given per year, so if you tear them up youre eliminating somebody else's opportunity to use that permit?
Mr. JOUBERT: Well, yes that was the idea and that's certainly something that we were doing some years ago. As it happens now, you can't shoot a male lion in Botswana. So the fantastic news is that all lions in the Botswana now have maximum protection. There are a number of other countries as well that are following suit. Very soon we won't even have to go down this route, but governments issue a certain number of hunting licenses and in places where those are inappropriate or if we feel that we have some sort of influence and we can acquire those licenses then they get taken off the market. But more and more that's not becoming necessary now.
GROSS: You said that Botswana is African wildlife conservations model citizen; Zimbabwe, the opposite. Would you compare Zimbabwe and Botswana when it comes to the conservation of wildlife?
Mr. JOUBERT: Well, certainly. I think that, by the way, I think that may have been in response to what we felt about what was going on in Zimbabwe, but I think there are worse culprits in Zimbabwe, actually. And in Botswana, of course, the entire system is working very, very well, so somewhere between 35 and 40 percent of the entire country is set aside for wildlife. That's enormous when you think of the global average, which is way, way down. Is it as percent, Beverly, I think?
Ms. JOUBERT: Yes. Twelve percent of the land mass on the planet is protected national parks.
Mr. JOUBERT: So, obviously in Botswana, way ahead of the game on that and a very, very stable government. President Ian Khama, who is a custodian of the wildlife and a very, very avid conservationist; ministers, the minister of environment and wildlife is great. He completely gets it, stable government, good economy and the small human population, so 1.5, 1.7 million people. And so all of those sort of factors work in favor of Botswana being the paradise for wildlife in Africa.
Other countries have bigger problems. Kenya, for instance, has an enormous human population and great pressure on its national parks. In other places, there's no revenue streams so they turn to hunting, and in particular, the hunting of these big cats and that's damaging in certain cases.
GROSS: So you are married. You live in two tents in Botswana and you live part-time in your vehicle as well. You see lots of animals, sounds like you don't see a lot of people. Do you ever feel like you've become disconnected from your own species as you watch wild animals?
Mr. JOUBERT: You know, I don't think so. I think we've been fairly disciplined about the length of time that we spend in the field and then coming out again. Obviously, when we edit a film like this were in town for two years, that's how long it took us to edit The Last Dance. So during that time, we were saturated with all of the cultural things that we may be missing were out in the field for two years. For us, certainly, this balance works very very well.
Ms. JOUBERT: But I think what we practice and it's really what philosophers and poets have always done, they would remove themselves from the hustle and bustle and chaos of humanity and be in a quiet place. And that's really what we do. We are able to reflect and to connect and see where we're going as a society. And then when we're in society, you know, we obviously are able to see what the importance is of certain things are and where we might be misleading ourselves. And so I think it's really important to actually have the balance. I think everybody should have the balance, but it wouldn't have to necessarily be the balance that we have that is more of nature.
GROSS: So in the years that youve been making wildlife movies, you've witnessed, you say, a few thousand kills. Would you compare your reaction the first few times you saw a wild animal kill another animal to what your reaction is now?
Mr. JOUBERT: Interesting. I think that the first time was adrenaline fueled, highly anxiety driven moment for both of us, maybe more so for Beverly. And it is like an amazing ride but also it's a real privilege to be there at the moment of transfer of energy from a live form to a dead form. And also, it's similar to what happens at a birth, actually. You've seen something change in the planet. And today I don't think much has changed for us. I think each one of these moments is precious and we, as Beverly said early on, we sit back and we're quiet, we pay reverence to it. We never have any sort of graveyard humor about it, definitely. But we certainly recognize the importance of any death.
GROSS: I want to thank you both very much for talking with us.
Ms. JOUBERT: Terry, thank you. We really appreciate it.
Mr. JOUBERT: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Dereck and Beverly Joubert have a new wildlife documentary and a companion book, both are titled The Last Lions. You can see a slideshow of Beverly's photos of lions on our website freshair.npr.org.
Coming up, book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews the new novel Pym, that updates at Edgar Allan Poe's only novel.
This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
The worldwide lion population has declined a staggering 90 percent in the past 50 years. In their documentary The Last Lions, conservationists Beverly and Dereck Joubert track the giant hunters across Bostwana and warn that without intervention, lions may soon go extinct.
In 1960, there were 400,000 lions living in the wild. Today, there are just 20,000.
"That represents a 90 to 95 percent decline," says National Geographic explorer-in-residence Dereck Joubert. "Unless we start talking about this, these lions will be extinct within the next 10 or 15 years."
Joubert and his wife, Beverly, have lived among populations of big wild cats for decades. Based in Botswana, the filmmakers and conservationists have spent much of their career documenting Africa's animal population for National Geographic. In their latest documentary project, The Last Lions, the Jouberts follow the dwindling lion population living in Botswana's Okavango Delta as they battle their prey — the buffalo — as well as rival prides.
"Marauding lions [come] in from the outside into their territory and fight with them," says Dereck Joubert. "These territorial battles are dramatic and often end up in death one way or another."
But obtaining dramatic footage of lions battling each other in the murky, swamplike Okavango Delta is not easy, even for seasoned documentarians like the Jouberts. They followed lions across river systems, pushing their car into chest-height water while driving — and they often had a front-row seat to heated attacks.
"Generally, we're situated about 20 to 30 paces from the action," says Dereck Joubert. "It's fairly chaotic. You never know where it's going to come from, where it's going to end up. Often, the action breaks closer to you than the ideal."
If the action breaks closer, the Jouberts are able to remain calm and in their vehicle — which doesn't have doors, a windshield or a roof — because, says Beverly Joubert, experience has given them insight into how the aggressive cats are likely to react.
"We believe that our knowledge over 28 years has prepared us to keep safe, and it's kept us being good filmmakers, without ever challenging the animals, without wanting them to give us an incredible aggressive look," she says. "We feel like the luxury of time will eventually give us that look, but we never, ever want to threaten an animal. At the end of the day, it's all about respect and having ultimate respect for these animals."
Following Ma Di Tau
In The Last Lions, the Jouberts focus on one lioness who tries to protect her three cubs from a vicious rival pride — by herself — after her mate dies in battle. Usually, a lioness will have a pride of female lions providing an additional layer of security for her cubs. But not in this case.
"For her, the stakes were doubly high," says Dereck Jouter. "She had lost her mate and her protector, and she had to go out and hunt — a very, very dangerous activity — and make sure she didn't get injured long enough for her cubs to be vulnerable and in jeopardy."
The lioness — who the Jouberts dub Ma di Tau — decides to find a new territory for her cubs. The Jouberts tracked the lions as they made their way through muddy streams in an attempt to reach an island where, unbeknownst to Ma di Tau, a herd of buffalo live.
"Their horns are incredibly sharp," Beverly Joubert says, "so that was a problem. Her initial stages [on the island] were having to learn how to hunt. And she studies them. You see she's watching, she's studying them. And she tries to take the [buffalo] calves. But in the finale, she is hunting a male buffalo bull."
Learning to fight buffalo wasn't the only way Ma di Tau had to adapt. In order to save her cubs, she took them through water. And lions, Beverly Joubert says, traditionally hate water.
"Crocodiles live in water. And even without crocodiles, lions aren't even comfortable getting wet when it's raining," she says. "These lions truly had to adapt."
At one point in the film, Ma di Tau leaves one of her cubs behind after he's injured. It's heartbreaking, Dereck Joubert says.
"While we can't anthropomorphize, we can certainly understand that there's something going on," he says, adding: "For us, this moment was much more about [Ma di Tau's] struggling with that inevitable maternal instinct to stay and to take care of the cub when she knew she didn't have the capability."
Dereck and Beverly Joubert are explorers-in-residence at National Geographic. They have worked on big cat documentaries for more than 25 years.
On why the Jouberts didn't help Ma di Tau's cub
Beverly Joubert: "That definitely would have been crossing a line for us. We made a policy years ago that we're out there to document. And that's what we do. We'll never intervene when it's a natural situation. So when it's nature playing out its game — without human interference — then we are completely hands-off and all we do is document, even though it's painful. But if we see a situation that is a man-made situation — for instance, an animal falling into a man-made waterhole or a snared animal or poachers shooting at animals — we do, we go straight in. We've had this happen before, when poachers have been shooting into elephants, and we're not even thinking about our own safety. We've driven straight toward them to confront them, and hopefully they will stop shooting."
On animal emotions
Dereck Joubert: "What we are very, very careful about doing ... is being careful about how we deal with what are obviously emotions within these animals. So we never, ever say, 'This animal is feeling sadness. And this animal is feeling hatred,' or any of those sort of things. What I try to do very carefully is say, 'We don't know about animal emotions, but any mother who loses her young must be going through something.' So I'd like to take people up to that point and then do a handover because it's very, very obvious that these animals do have emotions, but exactly what forms those emotions take is where we have to draw the line."
Beverly Joubert: "We do take an immense amount of pain. The emotional drain is huge. But often, the only reason we can bring [our footage] into the edited version is because we've gone through that emotional drainage. So I believe it's probably good for us, though on the day, it truly does hurt. It's like losing a family member. We have total respect for the end of an animal's life. We would never celebrate and go, 'Yay! We got it. Isn't that wonderful?' We totally do a little mourning ritual within ourselves just by being silent and being very respectful."
On not editing audio they capture
Beverly Joubert: "Often with the audio, it is a challenge to get the audio at all times, especially when there's a huge amount of activity happening. And I might be assisting Dereck to try and capture it, as well as trying to capture still images. ... But the majority of the time, we would need to get what is there on the day. Otherwise, we might be miscommunicating what the lions were saying on the day. Even though we don't understand lion language, we do try to get it as accurate as possible."