Big Cats at a Tipping Point in the Wild, Jouberts Warn

World Lion Day, created to recognize the importance of conserving lions, is celebrated annually on August 10. (Photograph by Beverly Joubert.)

With lions, leopards, and other big cat species on a downward spiral, we sit at a tipping point when it comes to the conservation of some of the world’s most iconic animals. That’s the perspective of Dereck and Beverly Joubert, distinguished wildlife documentarians and conservationists.

The pair have spent decades in the wilds of Africa, following lions and other animals, and are renowned for the films, photographs, stories, and scientific discoveries that have come out of their work.

Concerned about the rapid decline of big cat species across the globe, they teamed up with National Geographic in 2009 to form the Big Cats Initiative, which funds projects aimed at solving some of the most pressing challenges in big cat conservation.

In honor of World Lion Day on August 10, National Geographic caught up with the Jouberts—both Explorers-In-Residence at the society—to discuss conservation challenges and the progress that has been made through the Big Cats Initiative.

Why are so many of the planet’s big cat species on the decline?

D: There’s a very simple correlation between human population [growth] and spread and big cat declines. If you check back, every time we add a billion people to the roster, we lose half of the big cats. Fifty years ago there were 450,000 lions and we just started halving that each time we added a billion people. Today we’re at 20,000-30,000 lions and the same is true for leopards, for cheetahs, for snow leopards. All of these big cats are following exactly the same decline during that time. We can really just point this to human population growth and our use of the planet.

B: Even in America people have eradicated most of the predators because of [the fear factor]. Through the Big Cats Initiative we’re trying to bring the communities into an understanding that these animals are worth more alive to them than dead. If we take out the iconic species, they are going to lose [much of the revenue that comes from the tourist industry].

D: What we are worried about is that, while there’s poaching on big cats at the moment, there’s also increased poaching on all sorts of other animals—rhinos, elephants, everything else—and what happens is poachers go in and clean out the big cats first because it’s really scary to be around big cats when you’re poaching. So we’re anticipating a bump in the level of poaching and killing of big cats.

What do you think the biggest challenge is going to be to overcome in terms of the threats facing these big cats?

D: The biggest challenge is ignorance. Most people think that lions are big scary things and they’re out to get them. Or they go on a safari and they see a pride of lions around every bush and they go “there are lots of lions.” Neither of those is true so you’ve got to fight the ignorance. We also have to make sure that the communities that live around these national parks and lion ranges have some sort of elevated benefit because poverty is very bad for conservation. So those would be the two big obstacles: fighting ignorance and fighting greed.

B: We’ve also got to debunk the myth that the Asians believe that they’re going to gain the strength of a lion by having lion bone wine. Tigers are almost extinct and they’re not allowed to kill tigers in China, so they’re looking at Africa to substitute with lion bone wine. And so that is the biggest danger for us. Once you have over a billion people believing this, these animals are definitely not going to survive.

D: I’m also concerned about climate change. We have these declining populations of the big iconic species around the world, and we’ve set aside parks for them largely. So we’ve got these pillars established but we have no idea what effect climate change will have. If we suddenly get a surge in rivers that flood national parks we’re going to lose massive chunks of these animals that we think we’ve put land aside for. So we’ve got to be very careful.

Dereck and Beverly Joubert, Explorers-In-Residence at National Geographic. (Photograph courtesy of Beverly Joubert.)
Dereck and Beverly Joubert, Explorers-In-Residence at National Geographic. (Photograph courtesy of Beverly Joubert.)

What’s the main objective of the Big Cats Initiative?

B: The main objective is to stop the decline. We have lost 90 percent of lions, leopards, and cheetahs in a 50-year period. If we can’t stop the decline now then we will have them into a spiraling decline and they will move into extinction. So it’s an emergency intervention to take action and to create an awareness, but also to have people on the ground working with communities.

D: Beverly and I worked for many years doing films on lions, doing books on lions, and so on. We looked up behind us one day and saw a cabinet full of awards and declining lion numbers, so we went: “You know, making the films is great and we are bringing awareness to this [issue], but we were not making as big of a difference as we would like to.” So we formed the Big Cats Initiative and teamed up with National Geographic to make it a roll-up-your-sleeves, hands-on intervention.

What kind of projects do you fund?

D: We’re looking for something big. We’re not going to save this one lion at a time, so we have to think out of the box. [Most of the applicants are scientists,] but we’re not that interested in funding projects [that are only about science]. This is about conservation. If we’re not kicking the conservation ball forward, we’re actually kicking it backwards. It’s of no use to us to learn more about lion hunting behavior. We know a lot about it, and there are other institutions that will fund that sort of thing. We want to find out the solutions.

B: [All of the] projects are honed to fit the communities and the environment and the culture of each place. In each area the action is vastly different and that’s why we have so many projects out there. In fact we have [62] projects right now in [23] different countries. [editor’s note: these numbers changed after the Jouberts were interviewed.]

Can you point to a project with a tangible outcome that is emblematic of your main objective?

D: There are a few and actually we look at the Big Cats Initiative almost as venture capitalists. We’re seeding projects. What we’ve gone through is a phase of about five years where we’ve taken on a whole lot of little projects, and put smallish grants into those. But with the ambition that we then look at which are scalable, and to start investing more heavily in some of those. One good example is the [fortification of livestock enclosures] in Tanzania and in Kenya, which [helps] to make sure lions don’t go in and kill cows and stimulate retaliatory killings.

BPaula [Kahumbu] managed to get [a poison called Furadan] banned in Kenya, which is a great success. A quarter teaspoon can kill a man, so it is deadly. [Herders were] lacing carcasses so that they [could] kill the predators. But sadly China has now come up with a derivative and of course that poison is coming in and we’re seeing it now in Botswana. So what we have learned with all the action that we’re taking is that none of us can be complacent.

How optimistic are you that lions will still be roaming across Africa in a hundred years from now? 

D: One hundred years? (Thinks) We’re eternally optimistic and hopeful. Otherwise we wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing. I think that a hundred years from now is quite difficult to even imagine. Climate change is going to affect everything, and it may well be that it’s going to cause mass migration of humans.

B: We can’t give up. But I can tell you that we do go daily from optimism to pessimism. There are two of us so, fortunately, when one is pessimistic the other is optimistic. I think [optimism] is the only way for us to move forward.

D: Clearly on these curves, though, lions won’t last another 15 years. We’ve got to dramatically change something.

This interview has been edited and condensed. For more information, check out the Big Cats Initiative website and the storify of a recent Twitter chat with the Jouberts.

Follow Katie Langin on Twitter.

Changing Planet


Katie Langin holds a Ph.D. in ecology and was a 2014 AAAS Mass Media Fellow at National Geographic.