Eternal wildlife warriors

Be ambassadors. Interpret. Document. But never interfere.

This was Dereck and Beverly Joubert’s motto when they embarked on their “most memorable journey” 25 years ago.

That’s exactly what these award-winning South African documentary filmmakers have done.

They gave a voice to animals and wildlife with books and films such as Patterns in the Grass, Eternal Enemies, Ultimate Enemies and more recently Relentless Enemies.

Now another honor has been bestowed upon the Jouberts. They are part of a select group following their designation by the authoritative National Geographic Society as Explorers in Residence.

They say this is definitely going to change what they’ve been doing over the past two decades, because now they have a bigger canvas.

Relentless Enemies, the couple’s latest project, is currently being broadcast on DStv’s National Geographic channel. It deals with the daily confrontation between the lions and the buffalo of Duba, a swamp island in the Okavango Delta in Botswana.

The rules that Dereck and Beverly laid down for themselves 25 years ago allowed them to capture events on film that had never been seen before.

“We have been working on Relentless Enemies for over two years. It was only through the hours and hours we spent with the animals that we were able to capture the unique events without interference.

“The time we spent in Duba is definitely one of the most fulfilling to date,” says Beverly.

When the Jouberts started their journey, they had as a mission to tell people about the environment, about conservation and the need to look after nature.

Dereck believes their voices are finally being heard. 

“Every project we tackle has a purpose and is an effort to reach out and help nature, to make it better. I think we are part of the process of changing perceptions. Our films are a catalyst for change.”

Nature is about so much more than just the Big Five. However, Dereck and Beverly feel that if they do not pay attention to the survival struggle of these animals, the smaller species also have no chance.

“If we don’t take care of lions and elephants in particular, smaller ones like the caracal and the serval will disappear. If the space is there for the big animals, the others will also have a chance of survival.”

Society may be more environmentally conscious than 25 years ago, but that doesn’t mean the battle is won. There are still many lessons to be learned. Dereck says one of them is that nature will take care of itself.

“Nature does not need much help. It is fine just as it is, it will take care of itself. There will be good and bad times. Where things go wrong is where man steps in and begins to tamper. Man tends to over manage.

“If there is enough space, nature will be healthy. That is why we are behind large projects like the cross-border parks, which give more space. This is the solution.”

To argue canned hunting and elephant culling is the solution where poaching and overgrazing is the problem misses the mark completely. The conservation label is merely an afterthought, they say.

“There are parts of Africa where there is no more wildlife and where governments are prepared to make passageways. For example, the elephants of the Kruger National Park can be moved. It is a costly process, but money is available from foreign institutions.

“As far as canned hunting is concerned, the argument that the hunter will not go out and shoot in reserves certainly does not hold water. Animals do not deserve the humiliation of being bred in a cage and then shot. What challenge lies in this? Huge atrocities have already been committed in the name of conservation.”

The Jouberts are conservationists. They merely document nature,  they are not participants, says Dereck. For him and Beverly it is very important not to cross that line.

“We are very strict with ourselves to not interfere and provoke. There are more and more shows on television with animals being provoked to get a reaction. They see nature only for their own entertainment and not for any other purpose, not for any spiritual interaction and the meeting of time and place with nature.

“With our projects, we have time, sometimes several years. Our philosophy is if there is a shot we really like, but it will upset the animal, we will come back later.

“There is only one thing that will cause us to interfere and that is when humans are a threat. When an animal is threatened by the poachers’ bullets and traps, we will not hesitate to intervene.”

Nature has a way doing things her own way and from time to time things go wrong. Dereck and Beverly have had some interesting moments in the years behind the camera – he with the film camera and she with her stills camera. Beverly shares:

“We were on foot in a dry river once when a ragged lioness rushed at us. I’ll never forget those fiery eyes.

“Dereck just said ‘stand still’, but when the lion disappeared behind a bush for a moment, I literally jumped out of my shoes and fled.

“For us, it is the greatest honor imaginable if an animal allows us to live and observe it in its natural habitat. Like the young leopard we met when she was eight days old. The first few months of her life we saw her every day. She finally saw us as part of her world.

“It was very difficult at first, because we had never been so close and intimate with an animal. However, we never touched her because that would mean she would lose all her fear of man. That would spell her death. ”

They can still remember that first time when they arrived in Botswana 25 years ago, says Dereck and Beverly. The smell of the forest and the true wilderness, how free they and the animals were.

They are still living a passionate life.

“There are still so many stories to tell and so many wonderful things to discover. To get even closer to the animals, look into their eyes and try to understand what lies behind the physical.

“If we have the time, we can go on for another 150 years. This is our life, this is what we do and this is where we find our greatest passion and our greatest pleasure.”