Dereck and Beverly Joubert, National Geographic Explorers-in-Residence, have spent nearly three decades living alongside Africa’s lions and leopards. Working out of a tent or truck, they spend months at a time observing and learning about these top predators. With a collaborative storytelling style that weaves together Beverly’s photography and sound recordings with Dereck’s film footage and writing, they have created dozens of award-winning films, books, and magazine articles. They also now are helping National Geographic with the Big Cats Initiative, which was announced yesterday on the Today Show (and on this blog!).
A strong conservation ethic and deep emotional connection to individual animals grounds all of the Jouberts’ work. Beyond their home base in Botswana, they have also tracked tigers in Siberia, looked for snow leopards in Turkmenistan, and worked in Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Seychelles, Malawi, Namibia, and South Africa. Each intimate portrait they create is an impassioned plea for the stewardship of big cats and for maintaining the health and beauty of wild Africa and ecosystems worldwide.
Dereck and Beverly Joubert met in high school, but it was not until her 21st birthday that Dereck asked her to join him in a life in the bush. Their first stop was the Timbavati Game Reserve, where they ran a tourist lodge and Dereck started researching lions. After a year they moved to Mala Mala, a lodge and reserve next to South Africa’s Kruger National Park. Their work in the reserves gave them ample opportunities to observe and interact with wildlife. Dereck traveled the area with a local Shangaan tracker, who became his friend and mentor in reading animal signs and following behavior patterns.
In 1981, they joined the Chobe Lion Research Institute in Botswana, a country they have come to consider home. Their first years at Chobe required a major shift in lifestyle and set the standards for their work. First, in order to study the nocturnal lions, they had to become nocturnal themselves. Working through the night for months at a time, they regularly operated on very little sleep. The animals and energy of the place also made them realize that what they were seeing needed to be documented. So they set about teaching themselves the art of filmmaking.
Early on they established the principles that continue to guide their work. Recognizing that successful businesses are important partners in conservation, they worked to forge relationships between the researchers and the local tourist lodges. They also developed a code of ethics for their work. They established distance and lighting limits so as not to influence the animals at night and made a decision about when to step in and help. Intervention was acceptable only when humans had disrupted the natural process. That meant helping an animal with its foot caught in a snare but not helping abandoned cubs or an animal mauled by a lion. They believe that nature is a great teacher with the wisdom of millions of years. Often well-intentioned human efforts backfire so they prefer to let nature take its course.
After several years, they left the Chobe Lion Institute and set out on their own. After nearly three decades, their filmmaking and photography continues to express their deep appreciation for the beauty of wild Africa. Their belief that humans are a part of nature and must do their part to maintain it informs their work and conservation ethic. The Jouberts’ work has brought them a “growing appreciation of the individuality of animals and their rights to their own ways.” As part of their ongoing conservation work, the Jouberts are working with National Geographic on an initiative to raise awareness of the plight of big cats around the world.