Dereck and Beverly Joubert are undoubtedly ‘children of Africa’. As South African-born storytellers and conservationists, the husband and wife duo use the art of filmmaking to influence minds and change attitudes on a scale that they cannot do through tourism alone. The Jouberts together have produced more than 35 films with National Geographic, with many centered on the wildlife species of the Okavango Delta and northern Botswana. Anyone who has seen their creative work, either film or photography, will understand how their personal touch and passion transpires into each element of their conservation initiatives.
“We looked at our lives about 10 years ago, as one should from time to time, to assess how well we had been doing in our quest to save big cats,” Dereck shares. “We ran the lion numbers since we were born, and found that while the film awards and accolades were mounting up for us, the lion numbers were dropping from 450,000 to 20,000; and that is not success at all. We needed to change gears.”
By looking towards eco-tourism as a solution, they were able to afford large acquisitions of critical wildlife land. Under Great Plains Conservation, with Dereck as CEO, the Jouberts have found a way to bring together conservation, communities and tourism to fund large tracts of land that can be protected for the local wildlife and surrounding communities. Today, that land totals about 1.8 million acres in Africa. As founders of the National Geographic Big Cats Initiative, with 100 projects in 27 countries, their ambitious plans also encompass the Rhinos Without Borders initiative, which has already moved 37 of their targeted 100 rhinos, thus spurring the success of rapidly increasing the population of rhinos in Botswana.
On the buffalo encounter
Great Plains Conservation’s latest venture, Duba Expedition Camp, sits in Botswana at the heart of the Okavango Delta habitat where Dereck and Beverly were both severely injured and hospitalised this past spring after a near-death encounter with a buffalo. An outpouring of support flooded in from their fans and the conservation community alike expressing their best wishes for the couple. Though the buffalo was darted to be moved (the Jouberts’ stance to not take punitive actions against wildlife stands steadfast), the animal later died from injuries sustained following an prior altercation with another buffalo. It is a testament to their respect and humility for wildlife that they would rather relocate the animals that had very nearly killed them. Dereck proclaims that animals are defending themselves and their actions are most often natural, with the belief that it is humans who get in the way and fall foul of an accident.
“Killing an animal that causes injury doesn’t teach that dead animal anything and doesn’t teach the survivors in a herd anything either. It is simply an archaic reaction to our human sense of affront that anything has the disrespect to threaten us,” Dereck asserts. “I would have been hypocritical to speak out for these animals, and against hunting and killing for 40 years, and then change my mind just because a buffalo knocked me over and injured my wife badly.
The focus on Zimbabwe
The Zimbabwean land where their next project lies was nearly devastated from previous decades of hunting. They surveyed the land with Zimbabwean National Parks and it was decided to change the land use from hunting to complete photographic, and that Great Plains would rehabilitate the 250,000 acres along the Zambezi. The camp will pay homage to a vintage-style Zimbabwean safari through an emphasis on walking and adventure safaris. “I think you miss out on so much if you arrive by air to get on a vehicle, go to the camp, drive, have lunch, dinner, drive and fly out. That isn’t Africa. Not my Africa anyway,” Dereck says. “You can expect portered, walking safaris from the edge of Mana Pools down the Zambezi through great elephant and lion country, into the interior to giant baobabs, while sleeping in beautifully shaped 1920s explorer tents. We want to transport you into the safari of Hemingway’s days or Selous or Burton and Speke…without the constant barrage of gunfire they used to annihilate the ‘big game’.”
The Jouberts’ overarching development plans in Zimbabwe stem from the Big Cats Initiative, which shows where the big cats were five, 10 and 15 years ago and where they will likely be in the next decade, overlaid by human growth or movement in that time. This moving map projects where they need to invest to build ecosystems that are secure and stabilised against future threats. “We need to, collectively, be investing in about 44 million acres of land in Africa to secure the future of big cats and the surrounding landscape so all animals benefit from this strategy,” Dereck shares. “You can expect to see a new camp from us every eighteen months to two years in these very strategic places, partly because we also have a responsibility to develop revenue streams for communities at the same rate as their expectations.”
On growth and the future of conservation in tourism
The Jouberts invested to seize the opportunity for Great Plains Conservation to collectively attract the key opinion leaders of the world through low impact, high value tourism, in order to encourage their guests to become ambassadors for conservation. “There are some basic reasons to be in tourism and the least relevant is to make money; although creating stable business models is important for the success of conservation initiatives. We do need to use the land and wildlife to do good, for a better future. Anything short of that is failure, on all levels,” Dereck says. “Tourists can choose to travel to places that do actually care and that do good. At the same time, I see an era opening up where travellers want to engage and get involved and leave something positive behind: expertise, ideas, donations, and connections. I see our guests as partners on this journey.”
Considering their sizable growth and conservation success stories since inception, Great Plains Conservation is still not a corporate entity and there is no head office. Dereck believes in fundamental team building by pushing responsibility down the chain to regional offices to the degree that is needed and often talks directly to the camps or the reservation offices, while most of the administration is satellite or remote. He relates his management style to that of 18th-century pirates versus the navy. “I think the pirate story suddenly changes at about twenty camps, maybe earlier. As we have it now, I can make quick decisions. We are light on our feet. My team is smart, young, and I encourage them to take risks and make mistakes,” Dereck says. “That all changes as you get bigger and develop a little corporate fat. Mostly, we want to keep it fun and exciting.”
[All photos: Great Plains Conservation]
Championing a global worldview, Amanda Ho has cultivated the craft of storytelling through her work as Founder and Editor-In-Chief of Electrify Magazine, a New York-based print and digital publication capturing the voice of the global generation. She is also the co-founder of Sundays In Motion, a full service creative agency specialising in content development and branding.