FILMING FOR SURVIVAL
PURE ENCOUNTERS: DERECK AND BEVERLY JOUBERT
WORDS BY KATIE PALMER
Pioneering filmmakers, committed conservationists and co-founders of the game-changing Great Plains Conservation, Dereck and Beverly Joubert are quite possibly one of the coolest couples in experiential travel.
This dynamic duo have been filming, researching and exploring Africa for over 30 years. During that time they’ve made over 25 films for National Geographic – including, most recently, Game of Lions; they’ve founded the Big Cats Initiative; they’ve been awarded armfuls of accolades – including seven Emmys, Lifetime Achievement Awards, Peabody Awards, Panda Awards, a World Economy Award and an induction into the American Academy of Achievement (as well as being shortlisted for Most Influential PUREist in Experiential Travel at last year’s PURE Awards). Oh, and they’re part of the force behind ‘Conservation Tourism’ – a school of thought that continues to change the face of the travel industry.
PUREists since day one, we were lucky enough to meet Dereck and Beverly at a Beyond Luxury party held at last year’s Indaba. As what is fast becoming known as ‘Africa Season’ approaches once more, we thought it was about high time we shared their pearls of wisdom…
You are part owners of Great Plains Conservation, which follows a ‘Conservation Tourism’ model. What role do you believe the tourism industry has to play in conservation?
Dereck: I think it’s vital. We have a certain take on this; we aim for the highest end tourism, because we’re trying very desperately to turn guests into ambassadors for Africa and for big cats. But it’s vital.
You know, there is a US$80billion per year eco-tourism model into Africa – eco-tourism supports Africa and the communities, so without tourism and without lions everything starts collapsing. Poor communities will start poaching and start getting sicker and unhealthier, and these whole ecosystems will destroy themselves, so Conservation Tourism is a vital component.
Mass tourism is not the way to go, because that ecological footprint is too heavy on the land. However, the sort of level of tourism that PURE is all about – the kind we are all about – is selective and influential; it plays an ambassadorial role.
What does experiential travel mean to you?
D: I certainly think that the traveller today doesn’t want to go on a cookie cutter safari; they want to come out and they want to have some sort of life transforming experience – and at Great Plains that’s what we’re all about. We’re all about taking people in, showing them Africa, peeling away the layers, exposing them to expert guides and knowledge about lions, for instance, that they wouldn’t get on any normal safari. We try to get under the skin of those people so that they leave Africa totally transformed and become ambassadors for Africa. You know, we don’t particularly want to be in tourism at all – we’re filmmakers, we’re explorers, we’re adventurers – but the tourism component in that allows us to speak to a whole range of people that will go away having experienced Africa on a whole different level, and they’ll become our mouthpieces and ambassadors.
Much of your work focuses on the lives of big cats – why do you hold such a fascination for these species?
D: Where does that come from? I’m not sure; I think it comes from a place where… We came into Africa – the real Africa – and we wanted to understand those ecosystems and what drove them. And what really drives them is the big cats. So you start trying to understand the drivers – the big cat – and then you understand everything underneath that. In fact, if we take the big cats out of the formula, then everything underneath them collapses, so we’ve dedicated most of our lives to understanding those lions, leopards, cheetahs and what role they play in the eco system – and then trying to protect them. When Beverly and I were born there were about 450k lions, and now there are 20k lions – that’s a 90% decline in our lifetime. These lions are not going to last that long unless we do something, so that’s what we’re trying to do.
What was your motivation when you began making films? What role do you think films have in the arena of conservation?
Beverly: We actually started making films almost instantly. We started working at a lion research, and we were in an area that was really unique; there was an abundance of lions and hyenas and it was all happening at night time. No one had ever filmed in that area at night – in fact right through Africa they hadn’t done a lot of night work – and what we discovered was the lions and hyenas were at battle with each other, but really intense interactions, so we started filming pretty much instantly. We brought out a film shortly after that called Eternal Enemies, which has been seen by over 1 billion people around the world, and that really launched our career; but it was really because of the night-time footage and the unveiling of new, interesting behaviour.
For much of the time you live miles away from civilisation and rely on monthly supplies dropped by a plane – does this take its toll?
B: We thrive living completely in wilderness areas. It’s actually very hard for us to pull ourselves out… It really is home; it’s our soul. My soul is completely replenished by being out there – we absolutely love it.
You have founded the Big Cat Initiative with National Geographic, which has 20 projects in seven countries. What do you hope to achieve?
B: The Big Cats Initiative is an emergency intervention. We know we’re losing the cats at an alarming rate and we know that if we don’t stop them right now they may become extinct.; so our goal is to protect the last remaining areas, and as we manage to stabilise those area we want to open up corridors… So we’re working in two ways: with Great Plains Conservation in opening up large tracts of lands which are vulnerable, allowing those to be buffer zones for the animals; and then in BCI we’re working in preserving and protecting the last remaining areas. We raise funds, we give grants out to individuals who come up with great, innovative ideas of how to protect the animals in their particular area. And of course, Africa is vast, unusual place where all cultures are very, very different so we have to look at different solutions in every single area. And that’s really what we’re doing right now in BCI.
D: And it’s working. We’ve got 45 of these projects in 17 countries, and we’ve given away a few million dollars. These projects are judged in the same way you’d evaluate a business: they are results orientated, and I think that we’re making a difference. We’ve now go to grow it, spend more doing it.
You’re also collecting DNA samples from Lions – why?
D: You know, I think that the collection of DNA is interesting. For example, in the future where we can use lions from to boost other populations. But I think we have 20k lions left – if you do the maths that’s about 2.5k male lions – so it’s about time for us to collect DNA samples from ALL lions right now, so that we can recreate this population if it really goes sour.
You’ve won six Emmy Awards to date, along with a Peabody, the World Ecology Award and an induction into the American Academy of Achievement. Which achievement was your proudest and why?
D: For me the achievement that I’m most proud of is making contact with and getting to know a single leopard over four or five years and earning her trust. We worked on a film called Eye of a Leopard and during that time and we spent most of the days with her, so she came to know us and trust us. I think those moments, those flashpoints where you actually do achieve something are wonderful – and trust is probably the hardest thing to achieve. You know there have been the Emmys and there have been the other awards and that’s great, but a single, individual cross-species relationship is really special.
B: And what I think is really important is that we’ve been able to use our films as a platform to be able to speak to people around the globe about what is happening to our planet today, and what is happening to lions, leopards and cheetahs. Right now we are on the pinnacle of being heard, but really it’s not us being heard, it’s the animals. The leopard Dereck spoke about, Lakadima, she is the ultimate ambassador; in our latest film, The Last Lions, the lions are roaring this message and people are hearing that message.
We recently won a couple of awards at the International Wildlife Film Festival, and I think what makes us proud is that people are coming to us and asking, “How can I help?”; so I think I’m feeling very satisfied that the message is being heard.
Between you so far you’ve created 22 films, 10 books, six scientific papers, and many articles for National Geographic magazine… Do you ever rest?! When (if) you go on holiday, what do you like to do?
D: I don’t think that we rest. We don’t have time to rest, other than normal physical needs. We can’t rest. We’re on a mission here, and if we take a break for a year or two, big cats will disappear proportionally. So it’s not just up to us, but we’re desperate to try and save these big cats and we’re doing everything we can.
If we DID take a holiday where would it be…?
B: It would probably be to one of our camps! It would probably be right in the Okavango delta, or Kenya, or some unique place – or we’d go trekking with the gorillas.
D: Although usually it’s big cats place…
B: True, it usually is. I think it all started out with a passion, and we’re so driven to just keep going, to protect what is out there, because we’ve seen now over a 30 year period what it used to be like in the time we started to today, and it’s vastly different. But we’re still optimistic, and I think that’s why we’re so driven – we’re determined we are not going to be those people “Where we were young”… And that’s the only way we can do it: by being passionate and enjoying the places we work in. And so that’s why we don’t take a holiday, because we’re actually enjoying every single day – the whole experience is part of our life.
D: Wouldn’t it be great if we could look back and say, “It’s never been as great as this”? “When we got it, it was really broken, but you know what, we fixed it” – so that’s what our ambition is.
What brands and companies in high-end experiential travel do you admire the most?
D: Virtually all the members of PURE are admirable – everyone trying to reach a certain level. In our arena Singita has a great ability to turn people into ambassadors and turn them out. Cheli & Peacock, for instance – we’re close to them. There are too many to list. In essence this is not about business – it’s about passion. It’s about brining people in and helping them find a certain happiness – and that’s what’s PURE’s all about.
If there were one thing you could change about the travel industry, what would it be?
B: I think the travel industry needs to understand that it shouldn’t be on the clock of the individual camps. It should be an experience that unfolds to nature. I think too often we invite people to come to nature and we expect it to be on our time.
D: I want to change a lot of things about the travel industry; but one of them is: as these resources decline, as we realise there are 10k lions left and handful of rhinos and some elephants, then it’s going to happen naturally. That people will spend more time truly in awe of these big animals and these wilderness landscapes, but at the moment I think people are disregarding them – they come in, they do the 14 day safari, they tick off a few boxes, they go back home. These things are going to become more and more and more precious, so I urge people to do it earlier rather than when they’re all nearly gone.
But I think that part and parcel of that is mass tourism. I think it offers a very insignificant and shallow exposure to Africa – you never get into it. What PURE does, what this group of people does, is to take people to another level.
B: And what I think is really important is if we can add something to tourism. For Dereck and I, tourism is what we do, but I think we all need to be conservationists; so let’s ask all companies to embrace conservation, because if we don’t then we are going to loose everything. I think if we could all be optimistic that there is hope, rather than feeling pessimistic and just wanting to just utilize what we have now – if we do that then of course we are going to lose it. So let’s add conservation to every single operation out there. But it has to be conservation that is including communities, because communities are ambassadors for the future for every single country.
D: I think that’s right; I think that Great Plains Conservation is much more of cause than it is a business, and I think everyone in tourism needs to add a cause into their business.