'Last Lions' film humanizes fate of African lions

Updated: 2011-02-24 10:04


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Filmmakers Dereck and Beverly Joubert are somewhat famous in the small world of wildlife documentaries, and to those outside it, lead a romantic life filming wild animals against an enchanting African landscape.

But the topic of their new film, "The Last Lions," which recently opened in the United States, is anything but ideal.

The cold statistic that drew the husband and wife team to their latest story -- set in the lush wetlands of Botswana's Okavango Delta -- speaks for itself. In the last 50 years, African lions have plummeted in numbers from 450,000 to between 20,000 and 50,000, conservation groups say.

"These numbers are in desperate, desperate decline," said Dereck Joubert. "So we are going have to do something about these lions now or else we are going to have to face their extinction."

Statistics aside, "The Last Lions," is no dry documentary. Breathtakingly shot and narrated by actor Jeremy Irons, the Jouberts illustrate their point through the emotional, suspenseful tale of one lion, Ma di Tau, as she battles to keep her family alive, hunting buffalo five times her size.

"We wanted to bring this to an audience in a big theatric venue, on a big screen, so that people could engage with lions," Dereck Joubert said.

"Last Lions" has been compared to the Oscar-winning "March of the Penguins," which humanized a tale of Antarctic Emperor penguins on their annual trek to a breeding ground where they share protective duties over eggs and hatchlings.

In Africa, over the course of two years, the Jouberts lived among the lions on Duba Island, an isolated strip of land in the Okavango Delta surrounded by flood waters. They shot 100 hours of footage, beginning each day at 4 a.m.


Dangers included driving each morning in a vehicle with no doors or windshields through crocodile-infested waters before waiting up to 16 hours a day in 130-degree Fahrenheit heat (54 degrees Celsius) and mosquito-heavy conditions for the lions to spring to action.

"We've had lions charge right up to us and try and attack us, and it's usually because of something else. It's usually because a hunter has wounded this animal or a poacher has laid a snare. You can do your best but every now and again, things go wrong," said Beverly Joubert.

The Jouberts, who work alone in the field, say more perilous than the lions, have been elephants, the subject of some of their previous films and several attacks.

"We are sort of on the edge of danger all the time," Dereck said calmly, explaining they created a scale of 1 to 10 to assess each situation and the chance of dying. "There is something going on every single day...there are quite a few nine-and-a-halfs."

Mechanical mishaps are also risky, such as their jeep getting stuck in crocodile-infested waters or an attempt to land a small plane that goes awry when it is greeted by a herd of giraffes and flips over.

"Those are the situations that are often more trying than working with the lions, purely because we understand the lions," Beverly said.

The documentary has drawn critical acclaim with the New York Times calling it, "One of the most urgent and certainly among the most beautifully shot documentaries to hit the big screen in recent memory."

But the Jouberts aren't as interested in praise as much as change. "The draw is definitely to protect the wilderness and to the animals, to stop the poaching, to stop the safari hunting and stop the trade on all the animals," said Beverly.

National Geographic has announced that it will donate all profits from the film to a conservation effort known as the Big Cats initiative. Information can be found at thelastlions.com.


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