How to Save Africa’s Lions

Living and working side by side, National Geographic Explorers-in-Residence Dereck and Beverly Joubert have been exploring the wilds of Africa for more than 30 years.

Together the husband-and-wife team have published scores of books, magazine articles, and scientific papers related to conserving the big predator species we all associate with Africa: lions, elephants, and rhinoceroses. But the primary medium for sharing their conservation message with the world has been documentary film.

I had a chance to talk with the award-winning filmmakers about the ongoing threats to Africa’s big cats—and the pioneering conservation tactics that are giving these veteran wildlife warriors hope for the future. Here’s what they had to say.

Bret Love: You’re both from South Africa. How did you first meet?

Beverly Joubert: We met in high school, but didn’t start dating then. Dereck went off to do compulsory military training. When he came back, we went into the field and started exploring together almost immediately.

Wildlife filmmakers Beverly and Dereck Joubert pose with a lion pride early in their careers. (Photograph by Beverly Joubert/National Geographic Creative)
Wildlife filmmakers Beverly and Dereck Joubert pose with a lion pride early in their careers. (Photograph by Beverly Joubert/National Geographic Creative)

We worked in a lion research station in Botswana in 1981 and fell hopelessly in love with the wilderness. We did nocturnal work there for 15 years. Working at night takes its toll on a relationship because of sleep deprivation, but we [hung] in there.

That was the beginning of our filming career and this strong commitment we have to the Okavango Delta.

Dereck Joubert: It’s been a very romantic life. We fell in love young and have been in love ever since.

How have things changed for Africa’s lions since those early days?

Dereck: I don’t think we’re at the place yet where we can say that things are improving. [In fact,] we’re seeing massive declines. I suspect that we’re losing five lions a day on average, and the lion-bone trade is increasing rapidly enough to be considered a real threat to the species.

Tell me more about the lion-bone trade.

Dereck: Actually, they’re [marketed] as tiger bones, not lion bones, and used in a ritualized way in wine to celebrate Chinese New Year [because they are thought to have medicinal properties].

The lion-bone trade is a new threat that could have been avoided. No one bought lion bones until five years ago, when South Africa [began] allowing permits to sell the bones of about 30 animals. By now it is up to over 1,000 a year.

In addition to the relatively new demand for lion bones, what are the biggest ongoing threats to African lions? 

Dereck: The major threats are all about even, in my opinion. Habitat loss is increasing. As humans continue to grow in number, this is an inevitable threat.

Cattle conflict is about one fourth of the reason lions are declining. By working with the large cattle cultures, we can do something about that.

Trophy hunting kills 660 male lions a year. That is not sustainable or ethical: It’s ignorance and greed.

Are lions in decline everywhere in Africa?

Dereck: In some [places], like in Botswana, we have stable populations. In southern Kenya, at ol Donyo Lodge, we’ve seen a marked difference by supporting predator compensation in the area and working with the [local] Maasai. We went from losing 40 lions a year to losing none in the last few years.

One way we have engaged with the community has been by creating the Maasai Olympics, where warriors compete in track and field athletics rather than going out to kill a lion. It’s been a huge success. Maasai are now saying that the time of the lion-killing spears is over.

However, we still have to convince Thailand, China, and Vietnam to stop consuming lion bones, and we have to convince Western hunters that shooting a male lion for fun is not acceptable.

Through your company, Great Plains Conservation, the two of you are buying ecologically vital tracts of land—many of which were formerly used for hunting—to create, restore, and expand wildlife corridors in Africa. Why is that important? 

Dereck: As you isolate species into smaller areas, the risk of extinction becomes higher and higher. We commissioned Duke University students to look at where big cat populations were 15 years ago, ten years ago, five years ago, today, and where they might be five, ten, and 15 years out. Then we overlaid a similar map of where human populations would be. We use the big cat populations as indicators of how well the wilderness might be doing.

[First] we chose big ecosystems that we wanted to play a role in protecting, then we looked to see if there was any land in the extension of those ecosystems that was not well protected. We’ve got a “hot list” of 20-25 places that we will be targeting…so that we can play a role in creating buffer zones [around] Africa’s national parks.

What role do you see ecotourism playing in conservation efforts in Africa, particularly in regard to providing an alternative to hunting tourism? 

Dereck: Let’s take Botswana’s Selinda Camp Reserve—which we bought [about] eight years ago when 80 percent of its revenue was from hunting and 20 percent from ecotourism—for example. We shut down the hunting [there] on day one and immediately went into the red, but eventually clawed our way out of it.

The wildlife numbers [at Selinda] were seriously depleted. We saw just one leopard and 50 buffalo in six years. Hunters would shoot lions to the point where whole prides collapsed. [First] they shot the male lions, [which] were replaced [in the pride] by inferior lions. And they shot those, too. Then the cubs grew up and started mating with their mothers and grandmothers until the entire system collapsed.

[Before we took over the camp, the previous owners had] hired 12 people for five months of the year and attracted 12 hunters a year to come shoot wildlife.

Now, we hire 180 people from the local area for 12 months a year. The trickle-down effect is that we put food in the mouths of about 2,500 people.

How are big cats in the rest of the world faring?

Dereck: Tigers and snow leopards [in Asia] suffer from a common enemy, which is habitat loss and the associated loss of prey. As slash-and-burn farming practices creep forward, toward wild lands, man moves ahead and poaches for meat. Prey numbers fall and marginalize predators to such a degree that the slash-and-burn comes along late enough to no longer really matter. Again, it’s [a matter of] ignorance and greed.

Cougars [throughout the Americas] suffer from a similar, but Western, version of progress, but with a larger degree of livestock conflict and fear from people that these big cats are out to get them for some reason.

What can ordinary people do to support big cat conservation?

Dereck: People can become more knowledgeable and informed, and cause an uproar when things are handled [in the] wrong [way]. The Cecil the Lion incident is a prime example [of that].

They can go to, part of our Great Plains Foundation site, for information on hunting and other problems with lions, and spread the word on social media. We post scientific studies that reveal why hunting is bad, where donated money goes, which organizations promote hunting but accept anti-hunting donations, and which airlines allow dead animals to be transported. The National Geographic Big Cats Initiative website is another good resource.

People can lobby their senators and other lawmakers to ban big cat trophies from being allowed into [their countries] and lobby the Far East to stop the illegal wildlife trade. If we can stop the demand, we can stop the killing.

Though you are best known for your work with lions, your latest documentary, Soul of the Elephant, finds you paddling from one end of a river to the other in a remote corner of northern Botswana. What was your goal with this film? 

Beverly: Our main goal is to show the essence of who elephants are. It’s almost like an ode to elephants. If people don’t fall in love with them and realize we should be caring about them, we’re going to lose the elephant population at a much more alarming rate then we already are.

What is it about elephants that humans connect to on such a deep level? 

Dereck: I think more and more people are understanding that elephants are intelligent, gentle, sentient beings that have emotions, language, empathy, and all these things we like most about ourselves. The reason why I think elephants sometimes trump the big cats is because they don’t do anything perceived to be nasty, like killing young zebras. They have all the things we love about wildlife and family. I think they sell themselves.

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  1. Diana Beekvelt
    January 15, 2016, 2:01 am

    That is the main reason I loved working as a volunteer at African Impact. This organisation work with the community to save and conservate the Wildlife in Africa.

  2. Eric Vanacore
    January 12, 2016, 6:56 am

    LOVE and LIFE.

  3. Eunice Messick
    Media, Pa.
    January 11, 2016, 4:46 pm

    The largest reason these animals are disappearing is the ancient beliefs the Asians have. Naturally,the natives of African countries will supply their desired “medicines”, the lion bones, the rhino horn and the ivory tusks. Also, the nations have to get control over the hunting of these wonderful creatures. Seeing the carnage, there’s a heavy heart.

  4. Ian Macfadyen
    January 11, 2016, 10:14 am

    Thanks for this very informative article, I wasn’t aware of the actual loss figures for example. However, the sad thing is, that as I grow older, I realise that little seems to change! In the 70’s there was a lot of publicity regarding the plight of the tiger, just 1800 left in the wild, I can remember that figure clearly. So it would seem that perhaps the situation may be better than it was 40 years or so ago. That figure may have been the number just left in India, if so I stand corrected, but the fact is that things are still pretty dire, we haven’t yet been able to change the mindset among certain peoples that tiger body parts increase fertility and cure all ills! When I first visited Kenya in 1989 I found my first dead elephant, minus tusks, that had been butchered in the Masai Mara. And as long ago as the early 90’s, 26 years ago, I became aware that lions were struggling. I haven’t even mentioned rhino. It’s a sad world we live in, wonderful that people like Derek & Beverley are doing what they do! But even they must sometimes feel, that they’re banging their heads against a brick wall!

  5. Tina Dobson Gaffney
    SC, USA
    January 11, 2016, 3:29 am

    To Dereck and Beverly, for myself, number one on my personal blessed list is, that I was born in the year 1964, still alive, this is the reason for that, to be close in age to these 2 people, who could turn out to be the most important 2 that is going to be known as “rallying the campaign to save big cats”. It makes me feel fortunate to know the hard LIFE’s work, all they have accomplished. To pass on the normal known life most know as getting married, buying a house, having children, having a regular job to accomplish this normal life. So turns out they agreed to have not a normal life, but an extraordinary life. Im in awe of these 2 and one can guess I feel awe for them because I love lions, with what my passion is to live the rest of my time doing what I can to help save and protect them, while trying to live that normal life that was dealt to me, minus being married at this time in my life. Ill never be married again because nothing is going to come in my way of sidelining my passion for the help to save these big cats. Mind you, Im not a cat person, I’m a dog person, I have 5 minature poodles, that started out with 1, who is the love of my life. But I’m a Big CAT person, you would agree if you could understand how quickly this happened, that’s another story. After I discovered my hidden lion love as I started learning about them, I searched online for real info to learn, searched tv for shows to watch. I watched plently of docs that I love and are very important for someone not knowing about lions and to the point of wondering who filmed this one and that one, how lucky they are, I thought. That was just a few years ago, I know exactly who did those now and icing on the cake is knowing ALL they are doing still to save this iconic animal, the animal Ive never been around but have such a passion to help. How truly lucky the big cats are and don’t know it to have these 2 people, these 2 people who have spent their life documenting them, leading the fight to save them. My thought is they are 2 of the most important people alive today and I am too.

    January 10, 2016, 1:57 pm

    of course animals are intelligent,with cats being the most intelligent of all.
    after all you’ve never seen 8 cats pull a sled have you?!

  7. catherine heukelman
    Knysna, South Africa
    January 10, 2016, 11:42 am

    I am fortunate enough to actually live in this wonderful country and have been lucky enough to have spent time in Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia &
    Namibia as well as Kenya. i’ve enjoyed watching all
    of the Joubert documentaries. One I particularly loved was the doccie on Zebras…. excellent indeed!

    A very proud South African, Catherine Heukelman

  8. Mike Phillips
    January 10, 2016, 11:05 am

    Great article…deserving of everyone’s read!
    The Joubert’s commitment and their project
    work should be spread thru our entire
    educational systems. Perhaps a few seeds
    of compassion for these beautiful animals
    would be planted to flourish…

  9. Lynda Mulhauser
    January 10, 2016, 9:30 am

    Thank you for highlighting the life-long efforts of the Jouberts to prevent the further eradication of the lion population in Botswana. Having experienced the Selinda Reserve and its camp, I witnessed the strong commitment and pride of the local staff in this effort. They are part of the burgeoning effort to replace big-game hunting with ecotourism. In Botswana, in contrast to other countries, this effort has had some initial success as stated in the interview. The first-hand photographs and films of the Jouberts are also an incredible educational tool in highlighting the devastation of these animals and their young.

  10. Juanita Baker
    January 10, 2016, 9:20 am

    Great work to transform the Masai. Similarly can we transform Thailand, China, and Vietnam’s people? e.g. Could a rock start or basketball star or whomever is their pop hero travel these countries doing their thing while publicizing the beauty of these creatures and the need to use a more potent, modern substitute? And what does science say could be convincing as solving the problem they wish for? Or should we just repackage Viagra and freely distribute it?

  11. Meg Jerrard
    Canberra Australia
    December 5, 2015, 7:25 am

    This was a really eye opening interview – I can’t believe that we’re estimating losing around 5 lions a day :( Sounds like a lot of the fight is going to come down to education, and working to raise awareness to stop the demand for tiger bone.

    Really interesting assessment of why the fight for elephants is trumping the fight for big cats. It’s sad, but it does makes sense that people have more of an emotional connection because they’re perceived to be less nasty, I only hope that through the amazing continued work of people like Dereck and Beverly people can find a place in their hearts to fight for lions too.

  12. Karla Noble
    December 4, 2015, 9:32 am

    I just returned from a Safari in Kapama Private Game Reserve, South Africa. I have to admit that I have a new respect for lions and elephants. They are amazing and beautiful creatures. Thank you for working to educate the rest of the world on the need to respect these amazing creatures and their habitats. Keep up the amazing and hard work… you are an example to us all. Best of luck on your endeavors.

  13. Penny Melko
    Tehachapi, CA
    December 2, 2015, 4:50 am

    Of course all animals are intelligent. Anyone who thinks differently is an blind idiot.

  14. Terrie Smith
    Georgia, USA
    December 1, 2015, 10:10 pm

    Very informative and enlightening article. I take away an understanding of the passion that drives this couple, their love for each other and partnership in saving these animals and their habitat. Reading this article strikes a chord in the heart to say it is time to find a way to save these animals before they become extinct! Very good read!

  15. Barbara Weibel
    December 1, 2015, 8:51 pm

    Great interview and heartfelt thanks to this remarkable couple. Spending part of each year in Asia, I am often exposed to opinions about this or that aphrodisiac, which usually has to do with body parts some endangered animal. It sounds like Beverly and Dereck are doing wonderful work on the ground in Africa. I only hope that efforts to educate people in Asia about the serious long-term consequences of the tiger bone (and other animal parts) trade will be as successful. If we can’t stop the demand for such items, no amount of effort in Africa can ultimately be successful.