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Beverly Joubert: We are truly passionate about the African wilderness and protecting the African wilderness, and so what we've done is we've focused on iconic cats. And I know, in the light of human suffering and poverty and even climate change, one would wonder, why worry about a few cats? Well today we're here to share with you a message that we have learned from a very important and special character -- this leopard.
Dereck Joubert: Well, our lives have basically been like a super long episode of "CSI" -- something like 28 years. In essence, what we've done is we've studied the science, we've looked at the behavior, we've seen over 2,000 kills by these amazing animals. But one of the things that science really lets us down on is that personality, that individual personality that these animals have. And here's a prime example. We found this leopard in a 2,000-year-old baobab tree in Africa, the same tree that we found her mother in and her grandmother. And she took us on a journey and revealed something very special to us -- her own daughter, eight days old. And the minute we found this leopard, we realized that we needed to move in, and so we basically stayed with this leopard for the next four-and-a-half years -- following her every day, getting to know her, that individual personality of hers, and really coming to know her. Now I'm destined to spend a lot of time with some unique, very, very special, individualistic and often seductive female characters. (Laughter) Beverly's clearly one of them, and this little leopard, Legadema, is another, and she changed our lives.
BJ: Well we certainly did spend a lot of time with her -- in fact, more time than even her mother did. When her mother would go off hunting, we would stay and film. And early on, a lightning bolt hit a tree 20 paces away from us. It was frightening, and it showered us with leaves and a pungent smell. And of course, we were stunned for a while, but when we managed to get our wits about us, we looked at it and said, "My gosh, what's going to happen with that little cub? She's probably going to forever associate that deafening crash with us." Well, we needn't have worried. She came charging out of the thicket straight towards us, sat next to us, shivering, with her back towards Dereck, and looking out. And actually from that day on, she's been comfortable with us. So we felt that that day was the day that she really earned her name. We called her Legadema, which means, "light from the sky."
DJ: Now we've found these individualisms in all sorts of animals, in particular in the cats. This particular one is called Eetwidomayloh, "he who greets with fire," and you can just see that about him, you know -- that's his character. But only by getting up close to these animals and spending time with them can we actually even reach out and dig out these personal characters that they have.
BJ: But through our investigation, we have to seek the wildest places in Africa. And right now this is in the Okavango Delta in Botswana. Yes, it is swamp. We live in the swamp in a tent, but I must tell you, every day is exhilarating. But also, our hearts are in our throats a huge amount of the time, because we're driving through water, and it's an unknown territory. But we're really there seeking and searching and filming the iconic cats.
DJ: Now one of the big things, of course, everybody knows that cats hate water, and so this was a real revelation for us. And we could only find this by pushing ourselves, by going where no sane person should go -- not without some prompting, by the way, from Beverly -- and just pushing the envelope, going out there, pushing our vehicle, pushing ourselves. But we've managed to find that these lions are 15 percent bigger than any others, and they specialize in hunting buffalo in the water.
BJ: And then of course, the challenge is knowing when to turn around. We don't always get that right, and on this particular day, we seriously underestimated the depth. We got deeper and deeper, until it was at Dereck's chest-height. Well then we hit a deep depression, and we seriously submerged the vehicle. We actually managed to drown two million dollars' worth of camera gear. We drowned our pride, I must tell you, which was really serious, and we seized the engine.
DJ: And of course, one of the rules that we have in the vehicle is that he who drowns the vehicle gets to swim with the crocodiles. (Laughter) You will notice also that all of these images here are taken from the top angle by Beverly -- the dry top angle, by the way. (Laughter) But all the places we get stuck in really have great views. And it wasn't a moment, and these lions came back towards us, and Beverly was able to get a great photograph.
BJ: But we truly do spend day and night trying to capture unique footage. And 20 years ago, we did a film called "Eternal Enemies" where we managed to capture this unusual disturbing behavior across two species -- lions and hyenas. And surprisingly, it became a cult film. And we can only work that out as people were seeing parallels between the thuggish side of nature and gang warfare.
DJ: It was amazing, because you can see that this lion is doing exactly what his name, Eetwidomayloh, represents. He's focused on this hyena, and he is going to get it. (Animal sounds) But that's, I think, what this is all about, is that these individuals have these personalities and characters. But for us to get them, not only do we push ourselves, but we live by certain rules of engagement, which mean we can't interfere. This sort of behavior has been going on for three, four, five million years, and we can't step in and say, "That's wrong, and that's right." But that's not always easy for us.
BJ: So, as Dereck says, we have to work through extremes -- extreme temperatures, push ourselves at night. Sleep deprivation is extreme. We're on the edge through a large part of the time. But, for 10 years, we tried to capture lions and elephants together -- and never ever managed until this particular night. And I have to tell you that it was a disturbing night for me. I had tears rolling down my cheeks. I was shaking with anxiety, but I knew that [I had] to capture something that had never been seen before, had never been documented. And I do believe you should stay with us.
DJ: The amazing thing about these moments -- and this is probably a highlight of our career -- is that you never know how it's going to end. Many people believe, in fact, that death begins in the eyes, not in the heart, not in the lungs, and that's when people give up hope, or when any life form gives up hope. And you can see the start of it here. This elephant, against overwhelming odds, simply gives up hope. But by the same token, you can get your hope back again. So just when you think it's all over, something else happens, some spark gets into you, some sort of will to fight -- that iron will that we all have, that this elephant has, that conservation has, that big cats have. Everything has that will to survive, to fight, to push through that mental barrier and to keep going. And for us, in many ways, this elephant has become a symbol of inspiration for us, a symbol of that hope as we go forward in our work.
Now back to the leopard. We were spending so much time with this leopard and getting to understand her individualism, her personal character, that maybe we were taking it a little bit far. We were perhaps taking her for granted, and maybe she didn't like that that much. This is about couples working together, and so I do need to say that within the vehicle we have quite strict territories, Beverly and I. Beverly sits on the one side where all her camera gear is, and I'm on the other side where my space is. These are precious to us, these divides.
BJ: But when this little cub saw that I had vacated my seat and climbed to the back to get some camera gear, she came in like a curious cat to come and investigate. It was phenomenal, and we felt grateful that she trusted us to that extent. But at the same time, we were concerned that if she created this as a habit and jumped into somebody else's car, it might not turn out the same way -- she might get shot for that. So we knew we had to react quickly. And the only way we thought we could without scaring her is to try and simulate a growl like her mother would make -- a hiss and a sound. So Dereck turned on the heater fan in the car -- very innovative.
DJ: It was the only way for me to save the marriage, because Beverly felt she was being replaced, you see. (Laughter) But really and truly, this was how this little leopard was displaying her individual personality. But nothing prepared us for what happened next in our relationship with her, when she started hunting.
BJ: And on this first hunt, we truly were excited. It was like watching a graduation ceremony. We felt like we were surrogate parents. And of course, we knew now that she was going to survive. But only when we saw the tiny baby baboon clinging to the mother's fur did we realize that something very unique was taking place here with Legadema. And of course, the baby baboon was so innocent, it didn't turn and run. So what we watched over the next couple of hours was very unique. It was absolutely amazing when she picked it up to safety, protecting it from the hyena. And over the next five hours, she took care of it. We realized that we actually don't know everything, and that nature is so unpredictable, we have to be open at all times.
DJ: Okay, so she was a little bit rough. (Laughter) But in fact, what we were seeing here was interesting. Because she is a cub wanting to play, but she was also a predator needing to kill, and yet conflicted in some way, because she was also an emerging mother. She had this maternal instinct, much like a young girl on her way to womanhood, and so this really took us to this new level of understanding that personality.
BJ: And of course, through the night, they lay together. They ended up sleeping for hours. But I have to tell you -- everybody always asks, "What happened to the baby baboon?" It did die, and we suspect it was from the freezing winter nights.
DJ: So at this stage, I guess, we had very, very firm ideas on what conservation meant. We had to deal with these individual personalities. We had to deal with them with respect and celebrate them. And so we, with the National Geographic, formed the Big Cats Initiative to march forward into conservation, taking care of the big cats that we loved -- and then had an opportunity to look back over the last 50 years to see how well we had all collectively been doing. So when Beverly and I were born, there were 450,000 lions, and today there are 20,000. Tigers haven't fared any better -- 45,000 down to maybe 3,000.
BJ: And then cheetahs have crashed all the way down to 12,000. Leopards have plummeted from 700,000 down to a mere 50,000. Now in the extraordinary time that we have worked with Legadema -- which is really over a five-year period -- 10,000 leopards were legally shot by safari hunters. And that's not the only leopards that were being killed through that period. There's an immense amount of poaching as well, and so possibly the same amount. It's simply not sustainable. We admire them, and we fear them, and yet, as man, we want to steal their power. It used to be the time where only kings wore a leopard skin, but now throughout rituals and ceremonies, traditional healers and ministers. And of course, looking at this lion paw that has been skinned, it eerily reminds me of a human hand, and that's ironic, because their fate is in our hands.
DJ: There's a burgeoning bone trade. South Africa just released some lion bones onto the market. Lion bones and tiger bones look exactly the same, and so in a stroke, the lion bone industry is going to wipe out all the tigers. So we have a real problem here, no more so than the lions do, the male lions. So the 20,000 lion figure that you just saw is actually a red herring, because there may be 3,000 or 4,000 male lions, and they all are actually infected with the same disease. I call it complacency -- our complacency. Because there's a sport, there's an activity going on that we're all aware of, that we condone. And that's probably because we haven't seen it like we are today.
BJ: And you have to know that, when a male lion is killed, it completely disrupts the whole pride. A new male comes into the area and takes over the pride, and, of course, first of all kills all the cubs and possibly some of the females that are defending their cubs. So we've estimated that between 20 [and] 30 lions are killed when one lion is hanging on a wall somewhere in a far-off place.
DJ: So what our investigations have shown is that these lions are essential. They're essential to the habitat. If they disappear, whole ecosystems in Africa disappear. There's an 80-billion-dollar-a-year ecotourism revenue stream into Africa. So this is not just a concern about lions; it's a concern about communities in Africa as well. If they disappear, all of that goes away. But what I'm more concerned about in many ways is that, as we de-link ourselves from nature, as we de-link ourselves spiritually from these animals, we lose hope, we lose that spiritual connection, our dignity, that thing within us that keeps us connected to the planet.
BJ: So you have to know, looking into the eyes of lions and leopards right now, it is all about critical awareness. And so what we are doing, in February, we're bringing out a film called "The Last Lion," and "The Last Lion" is exactly what is happening right now. That is the situation we're in -- the last lions. That is, if we don't take action and do something, these plains will be completely devoid of big cats, and then, in turn, everything else will disappear. And simply, if we can't protect them, we're going to have a job protecting ourselves as well.
DJ: And in fact, that original thing that we spoke about and designed our lives by -- that conservation was all about respect and celebration -- is probably true. That's really what it needs. We need it. We respect and celebrate each other as a man and a woman, as a community and as part of this planet, and we need to continue that.
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Beverly + Dereck Joubert live in the bush, filming and photographing lions and leopards in their natural habitat. With stunning footage (some never before seen), they discuss their personal relationships with these majestic animals -- and their quest to save the big cats from human threats.
Documentary filmmakers Beverly and Dereck Joubert have worked to conserve wildlife for more than 25 years. As National Geographic Explorers in Residence, the couple influences public policy and perceptions. Full bio »