Botswana Is Conservational Bastion For Wild Lions

Photo Credit: Alex Strachan, Postmedia News

While many believe Africa is one giant problem, places like Botswana and Rwanda are countries with strong conservation policies. When Botswana’s government learned that lions were facing extinction, they outlawed killing lions. Find out what these countries, along with National Geographic, are doing to protect wildlife. — Global Animal

Photo Credit: Alex Strachan, Postmedia News

The Montreal Gazette, Alex Strachan

BEVERLY HILLS, California – It is the world’s most iconic animal. The stuff of childhood nursery rhymes. The inspiration for many of humankind’s most enduring myths. A purveyor of legends and, for those unlucky enough to be caught in its claws, the harbinger of nightmares.

The lion is a circus performer, the star attraction at the local zoo and a must-see attraction of any safari to Africa. Its likeness appears on crests, on coats-of-arms, outside many of the world’s law courts and on many of the world’s currencies.

And now, according to the two world-renowned researchers and wildlife filmmakers who have made big-cat conservation their life’s calling, the lion is in serious trouble of disappearing from the wild. Dereck Joubert, a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence and one of the world’s leading authorities on the behaviour of wild lions, estimates that lions may be gone from wild Africa within a decade, if something isn’t done in the next few years.

Joubert, along with his filmmaker-photographer wife Beverly Joubert, recently emerged from several months in the wilds of Botswana’s Okavango Delta to promote the National Geographic Society’s Big Cat Initiative, and to help promote the National Geographic Channel’s landmark Migrations documentary series, which recently aired on National Geographic’s worldwide network of cable television channels.

“It’s alarming, more alarming than most people realize,” Dereck said in an exclusive interview with Postmedia News, just hours after he stepped off a plane from his native Johannesburg, South Africa. “When Beverly and I were born, roughly 50 years ago, there were 50,000 lions. And today, there are – maybe – 20,000. That represents a 95 per cent decline in lion populations in our lifetime alone. If you project that curve, we’re going to hit rock bottom in 2020, so we have 10 years left. Some time ago, scientists were saying we have 150 years to fix this. There’s no way we have 150 years. We have five years to fix it. Otherwise, it will be unfixable,” said Dereck.

“What we know now is that, as numbers decline and get closer to extinction, the process of extinction becomes more rapid. So you can’t just follow this curve down to the bottom. As animals disappear into small populations, extinction happens like that,” Dereck said, snapping his fingers. “So we’re deeply concerned.”

It’s not too late, though. There are moments when, soaked to the skin in the wild marshes of the Okavango Delta’s Juba plain, Joubert hears lions on the prowl in the dark of night, just metres away, and he knows, deep in his heart, that the lion’s last wild sunset hasn’t dimmed just yet.

Dereck and Beverly found their calling early in life.

“We were both born in Africa, in South Africa,” Dereck said quietly. “We wanted to understand Africa. When you’re born in Johannesburg, it’s Africa, but it’s not really Africa. We wanted to go out and really understand Africa. So we went out into the bush. And the first thing that we decided to do was to study big cats, because we felt that, by understanding big cats, you could understand all the other intricacies of the ecosystem, being an apex predator and being a major driver of the ecosystem. And I guess we got kind of stuck with it,” he said.

“We never really understood, even now, what big cats really are. Each year, we go through another layer, and another layer, and another layer. They’re certainly the most important driving influence of the African ecosystem.”

The Jouberts hope their films will touch people who will never see a wild lion or leopard, even if only in some small way.

“What we’re hoping that people take away from the films is that these are big, charismatic animals, iconic animals of Africa, and yet they’re dramatically threatened,” Dereck said. “And so we need people to focus on that. We could lose these big iconic animals, lions in particular, in the next 10 years.”

There’s something wondrous about peering inside the secretive world of wild predators, Beverly believes. It’s a privilege anyone watching the film can appreciate as much as the filmmakers who made it.

“We’ve captured some scenes that have never been seen before,” she said. “On the daily basis that we’re filming, the unknown is always there to be found. We just have to put in the time to find it. By taking those scenes, which at the time were really new to science, and seeing them again today, for a second and third time, we can learn how these animals behave, and can protect them in the future. We’re hoping that, by doing this, we can inspire people to be aware and take care of what we have now.”

Awareness that a crisis exists is half the battle, Dereck insists.

“Because these are big, iconic animals, everybody thinks somebody’s taking care of them and there’s no real problem. Learning that there are fewer than 20, 000 lions is the first step, said Dereck. “That’s why National Geographic is so passionate about this.”

The Jouberts were the first filmmakers to document lions attacking and killing an elephant. The nighttime footage, gained after years of tracking lions deep in the heart of the Okavango’s wilderness, raised a number of ethical questions.

“We first heard about the elephants-as-prey situation in Botswana in 1985,” Dereck said. “It took us 11 years of working on it before we actually filmed it. Yes, we were the first ones to film it. It was exciting – but gruelling, as well. Really emotionally gruelling.”

The filmmakers had to decide what would be palatable to anyone watching their film. The killing took hours, and the elephant was literally screaming as the lions swarmed it.

“There’s an easy way to deal with it, and that’s to drop the sound,” Dereck explained quietly. “But the sound completes the reality of it. Sometimes, reality is too much. So it’s a real balance in what you show people,” he said. “Being out there and filming these things is emotionally harrowing at times.”

The Jouberts are members of a select group at National Geographic – the society’s explorers-in-residence has only 13 members – and represent a range of scientific disciplines. Canadian cultural anthropologist Wade Davis is a longtime member; world-renowned primatologist Jane Goodall is a past member.

“In some ways, we serve as ambassadors for the National Geographic Society, at least to some degree. The more exciting part of it, though, is that we get to go out and explore the world in the old tradition of scouting and exploration, and then bring that knowledge back to mainstream society and civilization,” said Dereck. “The other interesting part of it is that we pool our resources. These 13 explorers-in-residence have an opportunity to interact and take discussion points across different disciplines of science. So we’ll have a discussion with (Kenya paleontologist Louise Leakey) about the origins of man and how humankind adapted to the environment, and how that translates to how lions are now under pressure for all sorts of reasons. Are there parallels there? At the same time, we’ll talk to Wade Davis about the value and spirituality of lions in different cultures, whether there are cultures that really depend on lions, and how we interact with those cultures in a respectful way. It’s probably the most stimulating group of people that we’re exposed to.”

The National Geographic name carries a significant amount of weight with governments across Africa, said Beverly.

“We’ve found the National Geographic name gives us a real leg up when gaining access to people in positions of influence,” she said. “It’s seen as a house of great knowledge, education and truth. Most of these people have grown up with National Geographic magazine. What they learn allows them to make decisions that are better informed for the environment,” she said.

“We always hold premiere screenings of our films. And after a screening, the president or vice-president of a country will often come up to us and comment on a part of the film. And we often find the policy will change in that country a couple of months later. So it does have a huge impact on these cultures. After all, it’s hard to make an informed decision, as a political figure, if you don’t know any better.”

Films and filmmaking may play a key role in the Jouberts’ lives, but the wilds of Botswana are a world removed from the glitz and glamour of Hollywood’s moviemaking machine.

“We live a very, very harsh life,” Dereck said. “We live in tents, often exposed to the elements. At least once a year, our tent collapses because of mice or weather or whatever it might be, (such as) a tree falling on it,” he said.

“And then we live out in the bush, very, very close to wildlife. So we’re always interacting with wildlife, sometimes having dangerous encounters, sometimes humorous encounters. You just never know where it’s coming from next.”

The advance of digital technology has changed their work day dramatically. Digital imagery is more forgiving, and less susceptible to the elements. The camera equipment itself is much bigger and heavier, but the benefits outweigh the occasional disasters.

“It’s meant a big, big difference in our lives,” Dereck said.

Their safety net is bigger, for one. On one occasion, their camp in Botswana – in the middle of an alluvial flood plain – was swamped. On another occasion, $2 million worth of camera equipment was damaged when their 4×4 sank while fording a channel during a sudden flash flood.

“We drowned a vehicle,” Dereck said sheepishly, “with nearly $2 million of video camera stuff inside the vehicle. All underwater. So it increases our tension level a little bit, too.”

On both occasions, the Jouberts were able to retrieve their footage and equipment, more or less intact. That wouldn’t have been the case in the days of raw film stock, or even videotape.

For her part, Beverly was able to see the humour in the disaster – afterwards.

“It was an expensive mistake,” she said. “But . . . without us having the energy and determination to really get out there, even though it’s into unknown territory, we wouldn’t have been able to capture the unusual footage that we did.”

Dereck has become a true believer in High-Definition and all things digital.

“It allows us to do a whole lot of things we couldn’t do before,” he said, “from shooting in low light to shooting extensively. With film, I would wait and wait and wait for a certain behaviour, and sometimes miss it. Whereas now, with HD, we can say, ‘It’s going to happen; we’ll start shooting now.’ And we’re covered. It really does increase the range.”

Going digital has resulted in longer work days, though.

“It has filled up our day. Now, when we go back to camp afterwards, we download all that footage, have to put it onto hard drives, protect those hard drives, back up the hard drives. We’re working from four in the morning to midnight.”

National Geographic’s Big Cat Initiative has established an emergency fund to help endangered animals wherever they’re found.

Dereck said it’s one thing for scientists and stakeholders to be involved; it’s important, too, that “people in middle America who will never see a wild lion be involved, because it affects all of us.”

The continent of Africa is vast, and much of what happens there – much that is good – rarely makes it into the Western news media.

“Botswana is the shining hope of Africa, not only for Africans, but for African wildlife,” Dereck said. “There are vast tracts of land – I think it’s 47 per cent – that still have wildlife, which is enormous. The Botswana government, when they were alerted to the fact that the big cats were in danger, immediately stopped hunting lions. You can’t shoot a lion in Botswana anymore. This is a very, very wildlife- and environment-friendly country,” he said. “Rwanda, with all its problems – 10 million people locked in a real conflict problem, with a burgeoning population and a diminishing wildlife resource – takes conservation very, very seriously. There’s massive protection in place for the gorillas, in this tiny country that’s home to possibly half the world’s remaining mountain gorillas. So we’ve seen a lot of hope in African countries, the ones that we deal with certainly.”

Beverly acknowledges that many Africans chafe at the common outside view of Africa as a monolithic continent long on problems and short on solutions.

“I often hear people say, ‘Oh, the whole of Africa is in trouble.’ You can’t generalize. It’s a continent with many different countries that are completely different from one another. My hope is that, as the Western world looks in, we all acknowledge those countries that are doing good,” she said.

“Botswana is very open to looking at the issues and making sure those issues get solved. Not all countries are like that. There’s no corruption in Botswana, the way there is in other African countries. It’s important that countries like Botswana be recognized and acknowledged for the good they do. We’re hoping that other countries in Africa take a look at what Botswana’s doing and possibly see their own future.”

The Jouberts believe that wildlife conservation – and saving lions – is closely tied to the economic and social well-being of indigenous people.

“One of the big things that gives us hope is leadership in Africa,” said Dereck. “I think there’s a new generation of presidential leaders emerging that is really serious about the environment. If you look at Botswana’s President Khama, this is a man who’s deeply intelligent and deeply concerned about the environment, and particularly the wildlife of his country.”

The world’s surviving wild lion population is in trouble, but it isn’t finished yet, Dereck said. Time is passing, but there’s still time left.

“If we all agree there is a problem, we can focus our attention and efforts to solving it. If we can do that, there’s hope – because we can swing this thing around very, very fast,” he said.

“One of the characteristics of big cats is that they breed quite fast. We have the land. Something like 84 per cent of Africa is uninhabited. We have a fast-breeding species, with lions, with most cats. We have the political will. A lot of these forces are coming together, right now. That is our hope: that in the end, we can do something positive about this, and something positive will come out of it.”

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