Dereck and his wife, Beverly Joubert, are award-winning filmmakers, National Geographic Explorers-in-Residence and wildlife conservationists, who have been filming, researching and exploring in Africa for over 30 years.
The Jouberts have made twenty-five films for National Geographic, published eleven books and half a dozen scientific papers, and have written many articles for National Geographic magazine. Beverly Joubert is also an acclaimed photographer, while Dereck is CEO of Great Plains Conservation and the associated Great Plains Foundation.
What inspired you to become so heavily involved in conservation?
We were born in Africa and always felt that, while we touched Africa each day, South Africa was a little like the Riviera of the continent and the real Africa was just a little north of where we grew up. As soon as we had completed our formal education, we went exploring. Those early journeys really opened our eyes. One day we came across an elephant peppered with bullet holes; on another, we followed helplessly as a male lion stumbled over a wire snare around his neck for hours. We were so in love with this place, each other and the planet, on a deeply profound level, that we knew that our lives would have to be dedicated to protecting it against more of what we starting to see. Atrocities are great in only one way: they anger and inspire and rally one’s mind and spirit against further evils.
We are losing a rhino every 6.5 hours in South Africa alone, five lions a day and five elephants an hour.
Do you think enough is being done to shake up public awareness?
No, there is never enough being done or these numbers would diminish to nothing, because you are right, it is ignorance and greed. The greed is always going to be there and we can fight that with legislation and anti-poaching etc., but the ignorance we have to fight with information and knowledge. It’s cheaper and longer term, but it is something we all have the capacity to do. And to be clear, this is not about saving some lions or elephants, but speaking out about protecting ourselves from a future that could become significantly worse than it is today, from an environmental standpoint, a rational, logical one, a financial one, a social one with our communities and a spiritual one. We lose all that if we don’t shout louder, smarter, further.
Why do you think most governments still allow trophy hunting, despite eco-tourism bringing in millions every year?
I think that despite the logic, and the clear economics, those countries are under the influence of lobby groups (usually foreigners and ex-colonialists), who are driving a selfish agenda, but some of these governments just don’t know how to get out of the hunting game. Many cannot even see the opportunities because hunting has been around just so long. There are very strange alliances, some that you would never expect to see, between very right wing conservative factions, often western, VERY conservative people, and left wing new African regimes that one would think would be natural enemies, but they come together behind the hunting issue. And I think that, fundamentally, it is about a common sense that it is okay to ‘take’ and use, at all costs sometimes, from the planet and its resources. Having said that, many governments do get it, and want to balance their portfolios better, like Zimbabwe and Uganda (another non-hunting country), so we are investing in those countries. In countries where vested interests are so entrenched and a discussion of alternative ways to look at wildlife are impossible to even start, we stay away from now. If we are successful and can prove that eco-tourism works somewhere, in the future they will want to follow. I don’t think we want to change every country away from hunting, but certainly it needs to progress from the old colonial era (a concept that is seen to be almost ‘evil’ in these African governments) and most certainly we have to change the style and attitude of the way we engage with wildlife and nature, as it declines. Surely? Why aren’t they following suit like the Governments of Botswana, Kenya and Angola? Many are.
Please tell us about the progress of the ‘Rhinos Without Borders’ project, a massive anti-poaching effort to translocate a hundred rhinos from South Africa to Botswana.
So, it is partly an anti-poaching effort, in which we work with governments to remove rhinos that are in high densities in South Africa, to low density and protected areas in Botswana. It makes sense, and is generally accepted as a conservation mechanism, to decentralise or de-cluster vulnerable or valuable species (well, anything actually, I think there is a saying about eggs and baskets that may be relevant here). But we are also trying to build a genetically diverse population in Botswana, so our efforts at RWB is to also get rhinos from different corners of Africa, so that we are not just building a population from one source again, as Ian Player did so well in the 1960s. It has to be said that without the very good efforts of many, many conservationists and indeed the South African government over the past fifty years or more, there would be no rhinos to source from, so I don’t want our project to mistakenly be seen as a rescue effort. It’s a future protection of the two African rhinos species. We have moved thirty-seven already and of those, five have had babies, and we are on track to move the next batches, so within 24 months I think we will get to our one-hundred target. People have been amazing at supporting this effort, including you at Elegant Resorts. Thank you!
Great Plains Conservation was founded in 2006 and boasts a collection of luxurious, eco-friendly, lodges in Africa, including two of our featured properties: Mara Plains Camp in Kenya and Zarafa Camp in Botswana. Are you planning to open anymore light footprint luxury camps?
Definitely. Next year we will be opening in a new conservancy in Kenya and with two places in Zimbabwe. One is a massive hunting area we have taken over, stopped all hunting and are presently rebuilding populations, surveying what we have and bringing in scientists, ex-hunters who knew the area and just absorbing as much information as we can, so our work can begin. I want to make SAPI, this concession, into one of the most important reserves in the country and by so doing, play a major role in securing Mana Pools. This is kind of our MO, so we are looking into Uganda and some of the old hunting concessions in Botswana. All our camps are very light footprint camps, but those we are building next are even more so, as we take advantage of new technologies. Of course, our method is to constantly circle back, refresh and retrain and make sure we can do the best job we can to make someone’s safari with Great Plains the best they ever experience. I base this on one principle in the company and that is that time is precious and to waste someone’s time with a bad experience is unforgivable. It’s the one commodity you cannot buy back.
Some Government responses to combat poaching include the deployment of Army personnel and shoot-to-kill policies. Why aren’t poaching numbers decreasing then, or is it really down to Government corruption?
It’s many things. If we look at rhinos, and rhino horn, traders have pushed prices (for obvious reasons), but the horn use is illegal and in places like China that stigmatises its use. If we legalise it, the market goes from a few thousand or even a few hundred thousands, to two billion people. We can expect a tsunami of poaching on the back of that if rhino horn is legalised. Ivory is presently being stockpiled and traded by commodity traders who never even see or use it, like those who buy coffee or pork belly futures. As long as there are a few prevailing conditions (and if we understand them, we won’t be confused or caught out by this: 1) poverty in Africa, 2) a growing market 3) corruption) the perfect storm will continue. If we want to stop this, we have to make sure that we tackle each of these, so that the risk and reward relationship changes. At present, at a price of $108,000 per kilogram of rhino horn, and with poachers taking 8-12% of that (shared between three – a shooter, water carrier and horn carrier, and spotter) and with a risk factor of around 5-10% of being caught or shot, the scales make it a fairly good gamble. Erode any of those factors and we have a chance of changing that dynamic.
What has been the most rewarding change to the law you have experienced so far?
Banning hunting in Botswana was controversial, but it has given our wildlife numbers chance to recover. We were losing numbers fast. It is also an unethical and frankly morally bankrupt activity. I mean, who really thinks it’s a great idea to go out and shoot one of the last 3,500 male lions left on the planet? Enough is enough, surely. China issuing an ivory ban was also a major turning point.
Living and working in the African wilderness leaves you exposed to the elements, in remote areas where a quick exit is not an option. Have you ever felt that your personal safety was threatened by the events you were filming?
Every now and then. Not just while filming. A life well lived in paradise comes with risks. We have been attacked in our vehicle(s) together by elephants four times, been charged by many lions (often in hunting areas and often after they have been wounded by hunters), I have had three bites from deadly snakes (none of them proved deadly, of course), I have been in three plane crashes, had 21 scorpion stings, four bouts of malaria and a few other miscellaneous incidents I may have overlooked. One I cannot overlook right now is what happened in March this year, where a buffalo hit both Beverly and me, smashing my ribs and pelvis, but putting Beverly in ICU for weeks and in hospital for months. The fact that she has survived this one is somewhat miraculous and it is a long story that will have to wait for some fireside telling one day. She has had 25 hours of surgery, 120 sutures, 7 titanium plates, 40 titanium screws in her cheek. And we are ready to take on larger and more relevant conservation issues and get back to the bush as soon as she is cleared to fly.
Having worked in the bush for more than three decades, you must have seen some incredible sights. Please tell us about your top three memorable moments.
I think the time we spent with Legadema, a leopard we followed daily for four years in Botswana, produced more memorable moments for us both. The ‘friendship’ we developed was unheard of and the relationship, as filmed in our film and book, ‘Eye of the Leopard’ made us better, more compassionate to the world, to wildlife and more dedicated to become that voice for these animals that are voiceless in their own destinies.
What’s next for the Jouberts?
What’s next for us is a renewed hunger to save this planet from its present status in its own ICU, to use what we have left and not waste a moment with small irritations, but to focus on those core values that have brought us so well so far, and now do what we can to change what we can of these injustices, push down obstacles and laugh at the rest.