The Story Behind the Filming of The Last Lions

Currently playing in cinemas across the United States is the latest National Geographic wildlife feature film, The Last Lions. It’s a poignant story about the struggle of a lioness and her cubs in one of the last remnants of wilderness available to Africa’s legendary big cats.

Chased from her territory by a rival pride of lions, the lioness and her offspring find refuge, of sorts, on a river island dominated by large Cape buffalo–extremely dangerous animals well capable of defending themselves against lion attacks.

The film was directed by Dereck and Beverly Joubert, veteran wildlife photographers and filmmakers whose work has been showcased in numerous National Geographic documentaries, articles, and books. The Jouberts have become advocates for Africa’s last tracts of wilderness, and especially the lions that live in them. (Read about National Geographic’s ‘>Big Cats Initiative.)

In this commentary for National Geographic News Watch, The Last Lions director, Dereck Joubert, explains why he and Beverly made the film and what they hope to achieve by showcasing the big cats to the global cinema audience. He also talks about the natural history underpinning the film and what it was like for him and Beverly to make The Last Lions. Crocodiles and violent savanna storms were only some of the hazards they had to deal with.


The Last Lions trailer.


By Dereck Joubert from Botswana

We titled our film The Last Lions, (opening across the U.S. right now) because we are deeply concerned about the last 20,000 African lions being just that, the last lions.

In our lifetimes, Beverly and I have seen a massive and disturbing decline (90 percent) in the total number of the big cats, and we anticipate even more losses before lion populations stabilize and recover.

What we were hoping for in our feature film was to be able to focus on just one of those last 20,000 stories of individual personalities in the lion world, and through that tell the story of all lions left in Africa.

But what has happened is a real uptake by audiences, resulting in the film being seen by extraordinary audience numbers in the first few weeks of its release, more than we had hoped for. I think it is popular because people see more than just a single lion story within the 90 minutes experience.

The people that talk to us about this, on Facebook and via The Last Lions website, are saying that it resonates with something in their own lives.

“At some stage the story becomes a story of character, and people have to pinch themselves to realise that it is about lions.”

Our film is about a single mom struggling to take care of her young in the face of a changing and ever more difficult world, with obstacles she could never have anticipated. At some stage the story becomes a story of character, and people have to pinch themselves to realise that it is about lions.

I appreciate that many reviewers ask about the “humanizing” of lions in this film. We’ve been as careful as we always are, through the rigorous fact-checking process at National Geographic, to avoid anthropomorphisms in the script — and yet what shines through the story, through the camera angles and close-ups, is what feels like a view into the soul of the animal.

On a big screen in a theater with 400 other people, this experience becomes a shared one, and if some people are sensing the joy, pain, revenge that they think Ma di Tau, the female character, feels, then that becomes infectious.

Its a wonderful feeling to be in the room and “feel” that shared emotion and travel that shared journey with an audience.

We wanted to create this experience because the last lions are in trouble because of us humans, and our responsibility for that is a shared one.

“We will only be able to save and restore these big cats in the wild if we act as a collective force.”

The solution to the situation we have created for the lions is also one we humans should share. We will only be able to save and restore these big cats in the wild if we act as a collective force.

Beverly and I are incredibly encouraged not just by the audience response top our film, but by the collective answer to the call to action to do something for the last lions. We need ambassadors for the big cats, an army of ambassadors, and this film seems to be unifying and gathering such a group.

We estimate that it will cost U.S.$5M a year for the next 5 years to completely secure lions and set in motion lion conservation strategies that can roll out across Africa.

We estimate that we need to double the land available to lions. We think we need to educate millions of people who live close to lions about the need and benefits of living with lions.

But none of this is overwhelming because we’ve seen that with just one film, even in its first stages of a national roll out, that people do care and respond.

Without lions we can anticipate collapsed ecosystems. We can look forward to increased poverty in communities in Africa that thrive off the $80 billion-a-year African economies generate from ecotourism. We will see the ancient connection we have to the wild places on Earth slowly fray and break as we lose touch and live ever more self-absorbed lives inside our Blackberries, in a virtual world filled with communication, yet devoid of communion with the Earth.

A few years ago, I was asked at a symposium what the future of conservation was. I answered quite firmly that there was in fact no future for conservation. With 7 billion people now on the planet and only 20,000 remaining lions, what kind of future, long term, could there ever be for conservation.

However, more recently, I’ve been seeing that it really depends on what those 7 billion people do. It depends on what the attitude and sentiment is. We can build a real army of people fighting for conservation if given the challenge. And we certainly have that challenge today, with the last lions. I’m confident that we will do the right thing.

The science behind the The Last Lions

There are many layers of research and science that go into the making of a film like The Last Lions with National Geographic, but it starts with the field observations.

One of the theories we’ve developing, and I will be writing up as a scientific paper, is about the the demographics of the buffalo the lions select as prey through the seasons of a year. We have well over 300 actual kills logged at Duba Plains in Botswana with this same pride of lions that is highlighted in the film and accompanying book.

With a fairly loose margin that I need to really understand better, it appears as though the lion pride breaks up between January and March and forms into sub-groups or pairings and, sometimes, like Ma di Tau, even operate as single lionesses.

This coincides with the calving period of the buffalo, which, as you can imagine with a herd of 1,200 buffalo, provides quite a lot of weak, young and easy-to-catch prey.

A young buffalo is still a substantial meal, but not quiet enough to be worth fighting over, as lions tend to do at a meal. When lions fight they bite and scratch one another, and those “feeding” fight injuries can be bad.


Buffalo Bull Chase — The Last Lions Deleted Scenes


If 1,200 buffalo are dropping calves at a rate of 8 percent a year, all in one short season, that puts nearly a 100 youngsters on the “market.” Single female lions work the field for stragglers. But by March, the wave of young has either been eaten or been incorporated into the herd, making it much harder to hunt, certainly much harder for a single lioness to hunt. So the pride starts grouping again, now into four or five females.

At this time the female buffalo start getting more and more vulnerable as the winter sets in and feed is less protein-rich. They lose condition, especially because new calves suckle and drain their mothers further.

Our results show a high spike in female buffalo kills from April to August. By then the lion pride is struggling to take on larger buffalo and must work together more and more.

August is when the buffalo bulls start rutting, banging heads and chasing one another around, often with blood streaming from their heads and faces, and a month or so later it takes its toll and they lose condition. Now is the time they are the target for the lions, and the risk of taking on a big bull is worth the effort. But it takes a full pride of females to achieve this.

Hunting females battle to bring these bulls down with coordinated attacks, so no matter what their internal issues may be, they hunt as a united pride.

This teamwork lasts a couple of months, but when it rains, Duba turns green and the buffalo calves start to drop and the pride breaks up and the cycle starts again.


Pride Kill — The Last Lions Deleted Scenes

The male lions at Duba play almost no role. There are few hyenas, so the defensive power of the male lions is not needed as much as it is in some other places where hyenas harrass the lionesses for kills all the time.

The male lions of Duba barely hunt (we once saw a male leap up and catch a letchwe antelope and then let it go because there were no females around to actually kill it). But they do listen to the night, and wait for marauding males to come closer.

We were in Duba about six weeks ago and saw the characters of The Last Lions, Ma di Tau, Silver Eye and the others. They have cubs now, since we finished filming, and a new male on the island. And Duba will continue to surprise and enthrall us each day and deliver new science and findings all the time.

The Filming of The Last Lions

Driving behind lions day after day may seem like a mind-numbing activity to many people who may be used to a little more interaction or action gratification.

Today TV is broken down into 12-minute segments (if you are lucky), thanks to CNN and cycles of news and ticker tape updates and pop-ups. So when we set out to do The Last Lions we knew we were going to have a complete conversation, with a few hundred people in a darkened room, an experience much closer to what it is like be be out there with us, driving alongside hunting lions or just watching them sleep.

It’s a virtual safari on a big canvas. But what you don’t get is the heat and dust and most of all…the buffalo dung being flicked up into your face as we drive along behind the herd of a few thousand.

You also don’t get the anxiety of driving into the river after lions and feeling the wheels slip, and knowing that the slightest hesitation now will end up with a day-long mess of digging and winching and collecting wood to jam in under jacked-up wheels in leech-infested waters, while crocodiles move around through murky water all around you. No, you just don’t get that while sitting, eating popcorn.

We drove into just such a river on this production with all our new gear and sank the ship, so to speak. It ruined the vehicle engine and damaged our egos.

However, the biggest challenge on this production was in styling the film so that it could feel like a big production film, so I used helicopter shots, steadicam and multiple cameras on one tripod and was always conscious of moving to a second position. Some days it got quite busy!

The most rewarding part of all this for us is when we are stretched to our limits in trying to get a scene–and then we so enjoy seeing and feeling how an audience responds to our efforts.

One shot in the film took me eight years to perfect. It’s a simple shot. Two African skimmers, those magical birds that fly at water level and skim the water with their bottom beaks. They fly very fast and sometimes duck left and right, a move that makes it very difficult, at least for me, to follow with a long lens. Well on this production I managed to get a number of shots on one afternoon that worked out perfectly, and added them to the film between two scenes to give a sense of place and the real sort of pacing that goes on in Africa.

Its not all crashing through the bush after lions on the hunt, and we wanted to show that, the down time. We also spent a lot of time looking at birds and other animals while keeping a eye on the lions, so this felt right to me. I smile in every screening as the skimmers fly past, and no doubt no one in the audience cares! I do.

There are wonderful moments on a film shoot and difficult ones.

During the making of The Last Lions, our tent would be trashed by storms. Bad weather typically sends us scurrying to the vehicle, not to escape for our own safety but to get cameras and film out of harm’s way. As a result we are always out of the tent. Then, when we return in the morning, battle-weary and ready to collapse, we’d find the tent folded in half.

It’s in those moments when its hard not to give up, put a match to it all, and fly out. But it is our home and the real secret weapon of how we film this all, is that we live there, for as much time as we can between editing and other “town” chores. Duba is our home.


The Last Lions.jpg


Click here for more details about the feature film The Last Lions.

Forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. He has 120,000 followers on social media. David Braun edits the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. Follow David on Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn
  • Kathryn Harris

    What a wonderful story to accompany another wonderful story. The Last Lions needs to come to West Texas. We have all the coyote-killers, rattlesnake-eaters, and prejudice cowboys and oil men than one region can shake a stick at. It is these people who need to see the plight of the predator and the purpose for such animals.

  • Kathye

    it was a beaurtiful film. I really enjoyed it but was deeply saddened and disturbed by the scenes of the female cub who’s back was broken. It really hurt and depressed me when the mother just walked away from her baby leaving the poor little thing all alone to die. I cried and cried for the poor little lost baby. Her body broken and not understanding what happened and why her mother just left her all alone. I know they are animals but to me this was not a good mother. Other animals stay by the side of the baby’s when they know they are going to die. I was really deeply effected by this scene. I cannot get those images out of my mind of the baby cub dragging herself to follow her mother. I can only hope that she did not suffer alone for long. That reality I did not need to see.

  • Rattan Gangadhar


    This is one of the most moving films I have seen. And the scene with the skimmers did not go unnoticed


  • ilona van oevelen

    i just saw the movie the last lions , but i cant stop thinking about the little lion cup with the broken back .
    does anybody knows what happend to the little lion cup ?

  • Jenny

    Just saw the movie, just like the others.. I was very affected by the little cub with broken back… can’t she be rescued? or bring to an animal shelter where she can be treated? I can still remember the relief she had when she saw her mother … but Ma di Tau just leave her clueless…

  • Bruna

    Just saw the film on cable tv, and I really got emotionally involved with it. Did or didn’t the female cub wh the broken back get rescued by the crew????

  • Violet

    Someone posted on a blog that after digging, they found via interviews that the film crew did not help or was not able to help the cub because they had to follow Ma. Poster said they came back, but cub was not there.

    If anyone knows other information as to what happened to this cub, please post. It was a very difficult scene.

    Also, if anyone knows whether the male cub is still alive, please post.

  • J. Wetzel

    So sad and so worried about the cub with the broken back. Was she rescued and sent to a sanctuary?

  • ilona

    i cant still not forget the poor cub . does anyone know what happend to it . me as a mother cant not understand how yoou can leave your helpless cub and as a animal lover that a personcan walk away and not help and feel bad about it no matter its nature i couldnt have walkt away without helping the sad and depending cub . my heart goes out to all the aninals without help . if anyone knows about anything about the cub please let me know . i cant stop thinking about it

  • Lidiya Kirilova
  • nathalia cindy

    I really love this movie… i really love animals,.. especially bigcat… all bigcat… this movie was very touching.. but i’m sad because the female broken back cub end up like that…. and for national geographic, i really hope one day i can be working in national geographic for rescuing the animal… 🙂 😀

  • pheonix russo

    A beautiful and moving documentary. I was also saddened by the little cub but understand mother nature has to take its course. I can accept natural things that happen to animals but not things that are done by man. Dream to one day see all of Africas magnificent animals. Another job well done by the Jouberts!!! I heard they were in the process of making a film of the male cub that survived If any info please post.

  • Ahmad Zahlan

    Wonderful movie and you guys are simply amazing. You managed to showcase the struggle that lions live these days in a mind blowing story. I was touched by every second of that movie. I cried and cried non-stop after watching the little female cub cowling with broken back crying for help. But the mother was forced to abandon her because the rules of Africa state that. In fact I’m still crying..

    God bless you all

  • Betsy

    I have no respect for the crew who filmed this none what so ever. Greed forced them to not rescue the cub because they were to worried about making money from the film.

    To the crew members I hope ur back gets broke one day and no one is there to help and you get eaten alive u all suck ass. You should never make another film u scum filming crew..

  • Kim

    Though this was a beautifully made film that captured the true goings on in the wild, the crew should have taken the cub to be euthanized at the VERY LEAST. We are human beings for crying out loud. Don’t tell me they had to follow Mama. It takes a few seconds to grab the cub and being her with them. And if they couldn’t/wouldn’t do it, they could have at least said they did. I cried for an hour for that little cub and it’s mother. The only thing that made the film memorable, is that she found her young male cub. I just can’t stop thinking about the poor female cub. What a terrible way to die – alone, hungry, scared, and in pain. May Karma get to each and every person who could have saved that cub from suffering!

  • Joe River

    All of the people asking about rescuing the dying cub are really disrespectful towards nature. Animals that live in the wild are not to be interfered with unless you are catching them for food or defending yourself after and an accidental encounter. You don’t invade their world, even when filming them. They are to be left alone and watched at a distance, unless they want to greet you with a friendly gesture like they sometimes do. Native Americans all know exactly how this works. There is a human world and a bear world, and the two are never to interact unless under one of the conditions I mentioned above. You are disrespecting not only nature, but also my people by saying you should help heal wild animals that get into fights. You hurt the entire species by saving those animals. You are diluting their gene pool with weak genes that were supposed to die off. Eventually, if you keep saving all the weaklings then the entire species of cat will be nothing but weaklings and ALL of them will die off.

    Please don’t disrespect animals, Native Americans, or Africans by saying we should interfere with nature by “rescuing” animals after attacks from other wild animals. What you are suggesting would lead to the death of all lions and African people if you started to do that, and hopefully you can find it within yourselves to get over your hurt feelings and think logically. It is even more disgusting that NatGeo has to put up with morons like you cursing their amazing work because YOU don’t have the first clue about gene pools or respecting nature like us Native Americans and Africans.

    • khaled

      omg people do get emotional i know, but you my friend are getting wild here, i did was one of those people asking, and as i thought it through its mother nature and their world should be the one taking justice. and just like his mother left him for good we should too. but i have two questions here.

      1-dont you think you are the on being disrespectful here, you could’ve just explained it through a better way, and that was a hard scene (from music, felt connected to the story to our nature to mercy others) we didn’t need no native neither africans to understand the answer. but thanks for the explanation.

      2- why do people actually do save and help animals in THE Africans wild and send them back to the wild? you said no one does? https://www.conservationafrica.net/our-projects/lion-conservation-projects/ .. even though am sure whatever we get involve in got ruined within a period of time.

  • Chana

    This is my 3rd time watching this and the toughest scene is when the lioness leaves her cub behind, but what I love even more is her determination to win on all fronts against the elder lioness and the male buffalo. The mother lioness didn’t give up, she stepped up and became a leader. She defended her surviving cub with all the strength she had. My stomach is in knots just typing thus because the story had such a large element of relatability. When the mother lioness and silver eye teamed up it was the ultimate team because neither lioness was going to give up. Then all the other lionesses came by her side and immediately this show former into a legendary show down on the level of a Super Bowl or the clashing battle scenes we crave from the best trilogies.

    This is an amazing movie that we all need to watch and study.

  • Star P

    I’m a huge fan of your work and an active advocate for all big cats. With this being said, I am saddened that you were not able to alert the parks Rangers to intervene and save this cub. It seems almost hypocritical to talk about the decline of lions yet watch as a female cub is injured and abandoned and eventually killed I’m sure.

    My biggest issue is this movie, The Last Lion, it has scenes from “Lions vs Hyenas” & “Swamp Cats” the scene where the lone lioness is being attacked at night actually plays out in the first aforementioned documentary in which you state she bled out in the grass and died during the night. The second, the silver eyed female was featured in Swamp Cats as the cub killer, killing cubs within her own pride. I’ve watched the “attack” scenes side by side and they are identical. I truly enjoy your work but I would like to know that after 8 years of filming, why combine multiple documentaries into another and say they are different? Another scene where the lone lioness calls out as if to “ask for help” after her cub is gravely injured, abandoned and left for dead then rushes towards the large pride, this lioness is clearly Matsumi from Lions vs Hyenas after her cubs are killed by the snake and she is bitten and recovers only to reunite with her family. Again, I’ve studied these documentaries side by side, they are the same scenes with different filters for effect. I’m just very confused why you as amazing film makers would make such a deceiving 3rd installment of lions. It totally took away from the struggles of the first two documentaries you released and only angered me that you added the dying cub and the dying male and are saying it’s the reality of the Lions struggles. I wish you both the best and respect your work but hope in the future, you are truly focused on a lion or pride and their daily struggles in this world but also capture the amazing family unit they preserve and present that film in its entirety to your audience without additions from years of film making just for shock and awe which left many heart broken, angered and saddened.

  • Daniel M

    Fantastic story and incredible lioness.
    I have read all of the comments and can say I agree with the man from Alaska. The mother nature is simple and difficult in the same time. I have to defend the mother lions, she is excellent and unique. What she did that was the right. Mother lions never clueless because they are guided by instinct.
    I accept the comments from people but I can not agree with them. No one can interfere to the nature. As for me I have not got any criticism towards the filmmakers.

  • Melanie green

    I just watched this movie, actually over and over again. wow… my heart is still in turmoil! The scene with the pride male dying, lightning & thunder all behind him, intense music playing, the lone lioness watched as her baby daddy pride male took his last breathe, ugh.. very difficult scene to watch, it still haunts me!
    As for the baby boy cub with the broken back, that also was a gut wrencher. The mother didn’t walk away without difficulty as some are posting. If you notice her eyes are squinted or closed for a long period of time, that’s an expression, her expression of processing & heartbreak. They even mentioned it took her awhile to decide to finally move on. I doubt it was an easy decision.Many people may hate me for saying this, as I’m a animal lover also, but her disabled cub became food for another of God’s creatures, giving back to mother nature. As it should be.. I saw a scene right after the mother walked away, it was a large bird that appeared to be carrying the cub away. It was a dark and cloudy scene, i missed it the first time, ( I’ve watched this show many times already) but I’m pretty sure it was a raptor of some sort that killed him. He or she probably had baby chicks that too needed food for survival. A sad reality..
    This movie was truely amazing, the fact that it sparked so much emotion in people just proves what an excellent job they did!
    I was happy to see that my Google search on silver eye killing cubs brought up many websites, I feel like I need more info on this pride, it’s so helpful when lions from these shows, movies get their own wiki site, lol. As I dig further and further into the lives of these creatures, I’m hooked, completely awed. Thank you!!

  • Ashley

    Even though this was back in like 2015 the mother left the baby to die. In The film a bird comes and it looks like it’s holding something it could be a baby? This is a great film but I would have went and put it out of its misery or brought it to a zoo even if I would go to jail I will be helping a little poor baby not suffer. Just like I would a human or a animal I hit with my car.

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