Twilight of the Lions

Ultimately unsurprising whenevery teenage boy has access to an AK-47. In the end, as we have done successfully here in North America, apex carnivoresand their supportive biome are relegated to obvious refugia such as Yellowstone and the Great Bear Rainforest.  This is still sorting itself out in Africa.

What is certain is that lion andhuman populations must be separated as must many other obvious conflicts.  The most difficult will be dealing with theelephant because of the broad geographic range it likes.

In the meantime the onslaught ofthe rifle has made pest elimination safe enough during the past century.  Apologists for the conservationists refuse toaccept that the large carnivores are in your face predators that will take humanvictims.  Human agriculture and the humanpopulation has expanded in Africa and the lionmust be mostly removed in any event.

It is now time though in which todetermine natural refugia that locally preserves parts of the natural biome.

Twilight of the lions; Could the world's most iconic animal be headedfor extinction?


Lions feeding on kill, Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya.
Photograph by: Alex Strachan, Postmedia News

BEVERLY HILLS, California — It is the world's most iconic animal. Thestuff of childhood nursery rhymes. The inspiration for many of humankind's mostenduring myths. A purveyor of legends and, for those unlucky enough to be caughtin its claws, the harbinger of nightmares.

The lion is a circus performer, the star attraction at the local zooand a must-see attraction of any safari to Africa.Its likeness appears on crests, on coats-of-arms, outside many of the world'slaw courts and on many of the world's currencies.

And now, according to the two world-renowned researchers and wildlifefilmmakers who have made big-cat conservation their life's calling, the lion isin serious trouble of disappearing from the wild. Dereck Joubert, a NationalGeographic Explorer-in-Residence and one of the world's leading authorities onthe behaviour of wild lions, estimates that lions may be gone from wild Africawithin a decade, if something isn't done in the next few years.

Joubert, along with his filmmaker-photographer wife Beverly Joubert,recently emerged from several months in the wilds of Botswana's Okavango Deltato promote the National Geographic Society's Big Cat Initiative, and to helppromote the National Geographic Channel's landmark Migrations documentaryseries, which recently aired on National Geographic's worldwide network ofcable television channels.

"It's alarming, more alarming than most people realize,"Dereck said in an exclusive interview with Postmedia News, just hours after he steppedoff a plane from his native Johannesburg, South Africa."When Beverly and I were born, roughly 50 years ago, there were 50,000lions. And today, there are — maybe — 20,000. That represents a 95 per centdecline in lion populations in our lifetime alone. If you project that curve,we're going to hit rock bottom in 2020, so we have 10 years left. Some timeago, scientists were saying we have 150 years to fix this. There's no way wehave 150 years. We have five years to fix it. Otherwise, it will be unfixable,"said Dereck.

"What we know now is that, as numbers decline and get closer toextinction, the process of extinction becomes more rapid. So you can't justfollow this curve down to the bottom. As animals disappear into smallpopulations, extinction happens like that," Dereck said, snapping hisfingers. "So we're deeply concerned."

It's not too late, though. There are moments when, soaked to the skinin the wild marshes of the Okavango Delta's Juba plain, Joubert hears lions onthe prowl in the dark of night, just metres away, and he knows, deep in hisheart, that the lion's last wild sunset hasn't dimmed just yet.

Dereck and Beverlyfound their calling early in life.

"We were both born in Africa, in South Africa," Dereck saidquietly. "We wanted to understand Africa.When you're born in Johannesburg, it's Africa,but it's not really Africa. We wanted to goout and really understand Africa. So we wentout into the bush. And the first thing that we decided to do was to study bigcats, because we felt that, by understanding big cats, you could understand allthe other intricacies of the ecosystem, being an apex predator and being amajor driver of the ecosystem. And I guess we got kind of stuck with it,"he said.

"We never really understood, even now, what big cats really are.Each year, we go through another layer, and another layer, and another layer.They're certainly the most important driving influence of the Africanecosystem."

The Jouberts hope their films will touch people who will never see awild lion or leopard, even if only in some small way.

"What we're hoping that people take away from the films is thatthese are big, charismatic animals, iconic animals of Africa,and yet they're dramatically threatened," Dereck said. "And so weneed people to focus on that. We could lose these big iconic animals, lions inparticular, in the next 10 years."

There's something wondrous about peering inside the secretive world ofwild predators, Beverlybelieves. It's a privilege anyone watching the film can appreciate as much asthe filmmakers who made it.
"We've captured some scenes that have never been seenbefore," she said. "On the daily basis that we're filming, theunknown is always there to be found. We just have to put in the time to findit. By taking those scenes, which at the time were really new to science, andseeing them again today, for a second and third time, we can learn how theseanimals behave, and can protect them in the future. We're hoping that, by doingthis, we can inspire people to be aware and take care of what we havenow."

Awareness that a crisis exists is half the battle, Dereck insists.

"Because these are big, iconic animals, everybody thinkssomebody's taking care of them and there's no real problem. Learning that thereare fewer than 20,000 lions is the first step, said Dereck. "That's whyNational Geographic is so passionate about this."

The Jouberts were the first filmmakers to document lions attacking andkilling an elephant. The nighttime footage, gained after years of tracking lionsdeep in the heart of the Okavango'swilderness, raised a number of ethical questions.

"We first heard about the elephants-as-prey situation in Botswanain 1985," Dereck said. "It took us 11 years of working on it beforewe actually filmed it. Yes, we were the first ones to film it. It was exciting— but gruelling, as well. Really emotionally gruelling."

The filmmakers had to decide what would be palatable to anyone watchingtheir film. The killing took hours, and the elephant was literally screaming asthe lions swarmed it.

"There's an easy way to deal with it, and that's to drop thesound," Dereck explained quietly. "But the sound completes thereality of it. Sometimes, reality is too much. So it's a real balance in whatyou show people," he said. "Being out there and filming these thingsis emotionally harrowing at times."

The Jouberts are members of a select group at National Geographic — thesociety's explorers-in-residence has only 13 members — and represent a range ofscientific disciplines. Canadian cultural anthropologist Wade Davis is alongtime member; world-renowned primatologist Jane Goodall is a past member.

"In some ways, we serve as ambassadors for the National GeographicSociety, at least to some degree. The more exciting part of it, though, is thatwe get to go out and explore the world in the old tradition of scouting andexploration, and then bring that knowledge back to mainstream society andcivilization," said Dereck. "The other interesting part of it is thatwe pool our resources. These 13 explorers-in-residence have an opportunity tointeract and take discussion points across different disciplines of science. Sowe'll have a discussion with (Kenyapaleontologist Louise Leakey) about the origins of man and how humankindadapted to the environment, and how that translates to how lions are now underpressure for all sorts of reasons. Are there parallels there? At the same time,we'll talk to Wade Davis about the value and spirituality of lions in differentcultures, whether there are cultures that really depend on lions, and how weinteract with those cultures in a respectful way. It's probably the moststimulating group of people that we're exposed to."

The National Geographic name carries a significant amount of weightwith governments across Africa, said Beverly.

"We've found the National Geographic name gives us a real leg upwhen gaining access to people in positions of influence," she said."It's seen as a house of great knowledge, education and truth. Most ofthese people have grown up with National Geographic magazine. What they learnallows them to make decisions that are better informed for theenvironment," she said.

"We always hold premiere screenings of our films. And after ascreening, the president or vice-president of a country will often come up tous and comment on a part of the film. And we often find the policy will changein that country a couple of months later. So it does have a huge impact onthese cultures. After all, it's hard to make an informed decision, as a politicalfigure, if you don't know any better."

Films and filmmaking may play a key role in the Jouberts' lives, butthe wilds of Botswana are aworld removed from the glitz and glamour of Hollywood's moviemaking machine.

"We live a very, very harsh life," Dereck said. "We livein tents, often exposed to the elements. At least once a year, our tentcollapses because of mice or weather or whatever it might be, (such as) a treefalling on it," he said.

"And then we live out in the bush, very, very close to wildlife.So we're always interacting with wildlife, sometimes having dangerousencounters, sometimes humorous encounters. You just never know where it'scoming from next."

The advance of digital technology has changed their work daydramatically. Digital imagery is more forgiving, and less susceptible to theelements. The camera equipment itself is much bigger and heavier, but thebenefits outweigh the occasional disasters.

"It's meant a big, big difference in our lives," Dereck said.

Their safety net is bigger, for one. On one occasion, their camp in Botswana — inthe middle of an alluvial flood plain — was swamped. On another occasion, $2million worth of camera equipment was damaged when their 4x4 sank while fordinga channel during a sudden flash flood.

"We drowned a vehicle," Dereck said sheepishly, "withnearly $2 million of video camera stuff inside the vehicle. All underwater. Soit increases our tension level a little bit, too."

On both occasions, the Jouberts were able to retrieve their footage andequipment, more or less intact. That wouldn't have been the case in the days ofraw film stock, or even videotape.

For her part, Beverlywas able to see the humour in the disaster — afterwards.

"It was an expensive mistake," she said. "But . . .without us having the energy and determination to really get out there, eventhough it's into unknown territory, we wouldn't have been able to capture theunusual footage that we did."

Dereck has become a true believer in High-Definition and all thingsdigital.

"It allows us to do a whole lot of things we couldn't dobefore," he said, "from shooting in low light to shootingextensively. With film, I would wait and wait and wait for a certain behaviour,and sometimes miss it. Whereas now, with HD, we can say, 'It's going to happen;we'll start shooting now.' And we're covered. It really does increase therange."

Going digital has resulted in longer work days, though.

"It has filled up our day. Now, when we go back to campafterwards, we download all that footage, have to put it onto hard drives,protect those hard drives, back up the hard drives. We're working from four inthe morning to midnight."

National Geographic's Big Cat Initiative has established an emergencyfund to help endangered animals wherever they're found.

Dereck said it's one thing for scientists and stakeholders to beinvolved; it's important, too, that "people in middle America who willnever see a wild lion be involved, because it affects all of us."

The continent of Africa is vast, andmuch of what happens there — much that is good — rarely makes it into theWestern news media.

"Botswana is the shining hope of Africa, not only for Africans,but for African wildlife," Dereck said. "There are vast tracts ofland — I think it's 47 per cent — that still have wildlife, which is enormous.The Botswanagovernment, when they were alerted to the fact that the big cats were indanger, immediately stopped hunting lions. You can't shoot a lion in Botswanaanymore. This is a very, very wildlife- and environment-friendly country,"he said. "Rwanda, with all its problems — 10 million people locked in areal conflict problem, with a burgeoning population and a diminishing wildliferesource — takes conservation very, very seriously. There's massive protectionin place for the gorillas, in this tiny country that's home to possibly halfthe world's remaining mountain gorillas. So we've seen a lot of hope in Africancountries, the ones that we deal with certainly."

Beverly acknowledges that many Africans chafe at the common outside view of Africa as a monolithic continent long on problems andshort on solutions.

"I often hear people say, 'Oh, the whole of Africais in trouble.' You can't generalize. It's a continent with many differentcountries that are completely different from one another. My hope is that, asthe Western world looks in, we all acknowledge those countries that are doinggood," she said.

"Botswanais very open to looking at the issues and making sure those issues get solved.Not all countries are like that. There's no corruption in Botswana, theway there is in other African countries. It's important that countries like Botswana berecognized and acknowledged for the good they do. We're hoping that othercountries in Africa take a look at what Botswana's doing and possibly seetheir own future."

The Jouberts believe that wildlife conservation — and saving lions — isclosely tied to the economic and social well-being of indigenous people.
"One of the big things that gives us hope is leadership in Africa," said Dereck. "I think there's a newgeneration of presidential leaders emerging that is really serious about theenvironment. If you look at Botswana'sPresident Khama, this is a man who's deeply intelligent and deeply concernedabout the environment, and particularly the wildlife of his country."

The world's surviving wild lion population is in trouble, but it isn'tfinished yet, Dereck said. Time is passing, but there's still time left.

"If we all agree there is a problem, we can focus our attentionand efforts to solving it. If we can do that, there's hope —_because we canswing this thing around very, very fast," he said.

"One of the characteristics of big cats is that they breed quitefast. We have the land. Something like 84 per cent of Africais uninhabited. We have a fast-breeding species, with lions, with most cats. Wehave the political will. A lot of these forces are coming together, right now.That is our hope: that in the end, we can do something positive about this, andsomething positive will come out of it."
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