Beverly and Dereck Joubert. All images courtesy of Beverly and Dereck Joubert.
Environmentalists, activists and explorers Beverly and Dereck Joubert, share their passion and drive to try and work towards a peaceful existence between humans and animals.
Interview by Rekha Shanmugam.
What do you do, in your own terms?
Beverly and I are both explorers, conservationists, filmmakers and people most interested in developing an Earth Ethic.
What inspired this life-long dedication to preservation of wildlife?
Like many others, we found inspiration from others. In my case it was my brother, Keith Joubert, a wildlife artist of some notoriety and an adventurer. For Beverly it was from the family visits to the bush, something that many people in Africa take for granted, many in the world. Having access to nature inspires.
Can you tell us briefly about the key initiatives you are involved in right now?
It is in drawing together the needs of communities as conservationist, and conservation or at least a commonly agreed upon Earth Ethic is essential for all other aspects of life. We can delve into ancient cultures or explore the deepest trenches in the ocean but without basic canvas of nature, all is lost. So we focus on big cats, rhinos, elephants and the large iconic species that are most likely to go extinct because they quite simply require large tracts of land. We approach this via the Great Plains Conservation through which we establish authentic, sustainable safari camps on important tracts of newly conserved land as well as via the associated Great Plains Foundation which is a registered non-profit that operates conservation and community programs. Through both channels we have conserved more than a million acres of land, created 660 jobs (which by extension support nearly 4500 additional family and community members), helped move 87 rhinos out of poaching hot zones in South Africa and established conservation education and solar lantern programs in Botswana and Kenya. Tourism can’t just be seen as vehicles taking foreigners around. It must give back via jobs and community support as well. We contribute over $2M a year into direct conservation or community work annually, so that takes up a lot of time for us and our teams.
Why are big cats your primary focus?
I think that using big cats as ambassadors is useful but when we started the National Geographic Big Cats Initiative we understood that without these, key, driving species, everything else starts to disappear. Lions keep migrations moving, and herds periodically chased by predators churn up the soil, that allows rainwater to soak in stimulating seed banks and on it goes. Saving big cats, and other iconic, keystone species such as rhinos and elephants has a deep, meaningful impact on preserving landscapes for all species.
Tell us about ‘Rhinos Without Borders’, how is your work making a difference?
As we look at certain areas in Botswana we both smile and know that without our efforts and a great team, there would be no rhinos there. It’s satisfying. In essence the project was about moving 100 rhinos from high poaching threat zones to safety in the wild in Botswana. So far we’ve moved 87 and from those we have had 28 babies born already. To put that in context, this doubles the population of rhinos in Botswana and that is significant. But most of all it has enhanced protection and demonstrates that two eco-tourism companies, ourselves and AndBeyond our partners in the project, working together for a change, can make a difference.
Which one of your films is your personal favorite and why?
The next one. I don’t say that flippantly, because later this year we are releasing a three part series on the Okavango one of the most magical places on the planet, but we do it through the stories of a few key predator characters; a lioness who has a shattered shoulder but survives, a leopardess with twins, a pack of painted dogs, and two territorial male lions. Each takes us from one part of the Okavango Delta to the next as the river itself is explained. We had a lot of fun doing this film, but of the 40 or more films we have done, each has been a passion project, so it is impossible to choose. Perhaps others can do that, and many write to say that Eternal Enemies, was one, but more recently Soul of the Elephant has been rerunning on PBS and as many people have been watching that as on the first run. One of our films went up on the Voyager space launch so perhaps our audience will widen one day!
Currently watching/reading/listening to:
Reading: Jared Diamond’s: Upheaval, and Michael McCarthy’s: The Moth Snowstorm. Watching: When They See Us (Netflix), One Strange Rock a series by National Geographic, and of course Game of Thrones. Listening: anything TED, but also Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules of Life.
What is the most important thing you have learnt from being a wildlife filmmaker?
Love. Love of everything. We recently had an accident, where Beverly really struggled (died 4 times) due to a buffalo attack, so soaking up love and giving love seems like the cure all to us at the moment and that comes from being a creative person soaking up every moment of beauty in the wild as well. Our more recent work through the Great Plains Foundation expands this notion beyond wildlife into the local communities and with disenfranchised people, especially women. As Beverly lay in hospital, interacting eventually with the nurses from all over Africa a common problem or characteristic became clear: that many many women, apparently functioning quite well, are hiding a deep hurt, or series of hurts and of being discarded by their families and societies. We want to help, meaningfully, so we have started the Great Plains Academy, and looking at giving women a second chance in these communities with a unique partnership between them, us and an organization in India.
What is the achievement of yours that you are most proud of? The biggest hurdle that you have overcome?
An achievement that we are particularly proud of has been in mobilizing millions behind the cause and plight of Big Cats. I remember being the only speaker at a conference in 2002 saying that lions had a problem and were declining. Today everyone agrees that it is an urgent issue. When we were born there were 450,000 lions in Africa and today there may be 20,000. For ten years scientists argued over our figures and whether there were 32,000 or 16,000 but today everyone agrees that the number is probably accurate and not even relevant because it is the trend that is alarming. So while the proponents of this cause are now in their millions (just look at Cecil the Lion, rallying call and its effect) we have been able to focus on solutions. Those will come from educating the next generation of big cat warriors and conservationists.
The biggest hurdle was surviving a buffalo attack really, I suppose. It nearly ended our lives and careers, but in actual fact it fueled our strength and resolve to speak out, often against enormous odds, like now where we feel that killing elephants again in Botswana is unnecessary. Voices for wildlife can be silenced too easily.
When you’re not working to save animals, we can find you…?
Hm. Not sure. Is there anything else? Meditating at dawn. Running. Working on designing a new camp for Great Plains Conservation perhaps, buying furniture, sourcing antiques, looking at material for curtains, writing, filming, and writing again. Wandering through art galleries in Soho in New York.
What message do you have for people who want to become wildlife filmmakers and activists?
Well those are two different things. I think personally, that being a wildlife filmmaker is a means to an end, becoming a voice for the voiceless. I do not believe you can coast through life without being an advocate for or involving one’s self in advocacy. Activism is somewhat different and often implies angry protesting. Anger won’t win arguments, so I think that being a smart advocate for the environment is worth doing and honing one’s skill on. As for filmmaking, I can teach wildlife filmmaking in an afternoon but you can’t teach the passion to spend hours, days, months and years chipping away at a filmic piece of art. It is an almost an obsessive addiction, you either have it or you don’t.
How do you educate yourself about issues pertaining to life in the wild?
We work on it 24/7! We are reading published papers, on the science of nature, and on ethics… the ethics of how to deal with the planet. Now we have experience on how to interact with wildlife according to our own rules of engagement (which is very little engagement if at all.) Often if we are in a new habitat, I might find a tracker or bush crafts person and go for a walk, to understand the local lore and how to track. We also spend a lot of time understanding the light. What time does it rise, when does it hit f8 at 250th of a second. I test light meters and wind direction constantly. Mostly, we want to become invisible so we try to understand how to do that in each place.
What, do you think, is the most immediate problem we need to take action against?
It is a trifecta of ignorance, necessity and greed. Ignorance: we MUST combat fake news and ignorance, misconceptions and lies. Once you know something it is impossible to “un-know” it. So we make films, give talks, and write books to unlock knowledge and fight ignorance. Necessity: if you “know” it’s bad to kill a rhino but can’t feed your family that is a major problem. So we have to collectively raise minimum wages, and increase self-reliance and jobs, benefits before we can have a conversation about appreciating the natural world. Greed is an entirely different pillar of the problem. If you know its bad to kill elephants and you don’t need to to survive, but you do it anyway, it’s usually for the ivory and to make a quick buck. That is a problem that is hard to combat. So while we can enlighten, and enrich to a degree, we need international law enforcement to help.
Do you think awareness of threat to wildlife has increased over the years? How so?
Definitely, and the work of social media has helped but so have the films that many have used to tell their story. But also, the problem itself has escalated to critical levels. We are losing 96 elephants a day, rhinos every 6 or 7 hours and there are fewer than 3,500 male lions left for U.S. dentists to hunt. We are now facing one million extinctions according to a recent U.N. report, and the biomass of animals on the planet is made up of 36% human, 60% of livestock and just 4% wildlife. So that story hits the news, hard and so it should.
Who is an ‘Eco Warrior’ in your life (a person who inspires you, who you look up to)?
In my case, its Beverly, of course, someone who has faced and taken a hard knock by wild animals and lived to tell the tale but then simply ramped up her energy to save the planet and environment. Very few have given as much to the environment as she has.
How are you an ‘Eco Warrior’?
Every dawn I wake and consider what I can do to help the planet, and mostly now, it is a battle plan in my head. We are locked in a battle for Africa and it is based on three major animal groups: elephants, rhinos and big cats, and complacency is the enemy. We will lose these animals in our lifetimes unless we ramp up the battle plans to “urgent.” This is what keeps me going.
My mission is…Change the earth ethic, so we can all live in peace with life around us, not in the aggressive way I see all around us now. The time of bullets must be over. We have seen enough bullets. I’ve been on the sharp end of them, I’ve seen animals die because people think it’s fun, or a sport, or out of fear. My mission is to change the world’s view of the planet from constant use, to at least coexistence and ideally beyond that to nurturing. Costa Rica is not perfect but it traded its army for the environment in their budget. We need to see the planet as a house we need to maintain, if we don’t, it will fall down and we suffer. We’re a long way off.