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Without Intervention, Lions Heading For Extinction

The worldwide lion population has declined a staggering 90 percent in the past 50 years. In their documentary The Last Lions, conservationists Beverly and Dereck Joubert track the giant hunters across Botswana and warn that without intervention, lions may soon go extinct.

44:04

Other segments from the episode on March 2, 2011

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 2, 2011: Interview with Beverly and Dereck Joubert; Review of Mat Johnson's novel "Pym."

Transcript

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Without Intervention, Lions Heading For Extinction

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Wild lions, hyenas, rhinos and elephants are the stars of the movies
made by my guests, Dereck and Beverly Joubert. The husband-and-wife team
have been making wildlife documentaries for over 25 years. They're based
in Botswana and live in tents and their vehicle, which is customized to
enable them to film animals close-up.

They work with the National Geographic Society and are the society's
explorers-in-residence. The Jouberts have a new film called "The Last
Lions," which follows a lioness who is left on her own to take care of
her cubs after the father of her cubs is killed in battle.

When she and her cubs are separated from their pride, desperate for
food, she makes her way across the delta's waters to an island called
Duba that was formed naturally only 20 years ago and had never been
populated by lions but was home to herds of buffalo. Eventually, she
leads a new pride on this island.

The Jouberts titled this film "The Last Lions" to reflect their fear
that wild lions are becoming extinct. There were about 450,000 lions in
the mid-20th century, when the Jouberts were born, and there are now
only an estimated 20,000 to 25,000. The Jouberts have written a book,
also titled "The Last Lions," illustrated with Beverly's photos.

Beverly and Dereck Joubert, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Now, your film
has a kind of main character, a lioness. How did you decide to focus on
her story?

Mr. DERECK JOUBERT (Filmmaker, "The Last Lions"): Well, Terry, you know,
we actually picked up on a couple of stories on the day when we started
this project and the series of projects. And her story was the one that
prevailed.

So this is a character called Ma di Tau, which means mother of lions.
But we also followed the pride and the males as well. But just, the more
and more time we spent with them all, she just got stronger and stronger
as a story arc.

GROSS: So the main character is a lioness named Ma di Tau, a name you
gave her, and the father of her cubs dies after a battle, which we see.
And he's fighting with other lions. Would you describe the fight?

Mr. JOUBERT: Well, it's - where the film picks up, we arrive, and we
start our story on this fateful night when everything changes for her
and for her male. But marauders come in from the outside, move into
the...

GROSS: Marauding lions.

Mr. JOUBERT: Yes. Marauding lions come in from the outside, move into
her territory, their territory, and fight with them. You know, these
territorial battles are dramatic and often end up in death, one way or
the other. And so that's where we start our story.

And certain things are put in place that day that completely change
everything for her.

GROSS: So would you describe the actual fight?

Mr. JOUBERT: Yeah, you know, what actually happened was that first of
all, two males came in, and her mate, the male, her male mate, couldn't
do anything but defend his territory. So he went straight in and tried
to confront these interlopers.

And very often, that works out quite well because there's a certain
strength of being in control of a territory that sways the sort of fight
in your favor but not in this case. And so these two males surrounded
him and attacked him quite brutally, and their females came out of the
darkness, as well, surrounded Ma di Tau, attacked her and very nearly
killed her. It did some serious damage to her shoulder, actually.

But it went on for about an hour. It was quite a dramatic fight, one of
the most dramatic fights we've managed to film in 28 years.

Ms. BEVERLY JOUBERT (Filmmaker, "The Last Lions"): And it was incredibly
intense because it all happened at nighttime. And so, you know, it was
hard for us to capture every aspect of it, especially struggling with
the dark.

GROSS: How did you get to film this fight, and where were you situated
as you were filming?

Mr. JOUBERT: Well, generally, we're situated about 20 or 30 paces from
the action. With things like this, it's fairly chaotic. You never know
where it is going to come from, where it's going to end up. Often, the
action breaks closer to you than the ideal.

In this case, it did happen around about 30 meters away from us, and it
was in the first starting of the light of dawn but not quite enough to
register without some sort of assistance from lights. And then as the
fight progressed, it got closer and closer to dawn, and we got better
and better images.

But again, Terry, just chaotic stuff happening all around us, around the
back of the vehicle, on the side, in and out of focus, all over the
place. And we were lucky to capture anything at all.

GROSS: So you're in your specially equipped vehicle, and you're, like,
30 meters away from where these lions are fighting each other. How do
you know you're safe?

Ms. JOUBERT: Well, we know we're safe because the action is all for a
purpose. And it's not about us being in their territory. It's definitely
about them fighting over a territory, and they're fighting, you know,
across their own species. So it's really lions fighting lions.

We don't have doors, we don't have a windshield, and we don't have a
roof except a little canvas, you know, over it. We believe that our
knowledge over 28 years has prepared us to keep safe. And also it's kept
us being good filmmakers without ever challenging the animals, without
wanting them, you know, to give us that incredible aggressive look.

We feel that the luxury of time will eventually give us that look, but
we never, ever want to threaten an animal. I think it's really all about
respect at the end of the day, and we have an ultimate respect, you
know, for these animals.

GROSS: You mentioned that threatening look. The look on some of the
lions' faces as they're fighting, it's such a completely different look
than when they're just, you know, at peace. And it's so ferocious. I
mean, you literally see, like, their jaws pulled back and the teeth
coming out, and it's really quite frightening.

Mr. JOUBERT: Well, it is, and it's designed to be, and this is the great
thing, actually.

GROSS: Maybe I should say the word awesome, too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: It's really awe-inspiring, yeah.

Mr. JOUBERT: It's certainly designed to be frightening because it
doesn't really serve anybody, any of the lions in a battle, to get to
the point where they actually make contact, get injured and die because
both the victors and the vanquished could get injured fatally within
this.

These are big animals with sharp teeth and claws, and so all of that
stuff is great. All that posturing, all their grimacing and growling and
attacking, into the throat area in the case of males that are covered by
manes, the function of it largely is display. It's very, very rare for
that display to then upgrade into a point of contact. And that's why
this was such a rare thing for us to capture this fight in this early,
early part of the film.

GROSS: Later in the film, we see lions preying on buffalo because the
lions need food, and they can eat the buffalo. But if a lion kills a
lion, will the lion eat the lion that it killed?

Ms. JOUBERT: No, the lion will not eat another lion. And in fact, often
the lions won't even eat other predators. If they kill a hyena, they
won't eat it, either, unless they are in absolute desperate times, you
know, maybe at death's door. Lions really don't have to eat other
predators.

GROSS: But, I mean, if they're dead already, they still won't eat them?

Mr. JOUBERT: No, they don't. They - first of all, other meat-eaters
don't taste great, which in many ways favors us. We're also meat-eaters,
generally. And so we're not on the normal prey menu item, basically, for
these big predators.

So the big predators, their preference is to hit buffalo, to kill all
the normal herbivores and very, very rarely another meat-eater of any
kind. The meat just doesn't taste good.

GROSS: That's interesting. If you're just joining us, my guests are
Dereck and Beverly Joubert, and they've been making wildlife films for
decades, and their new film, "The Last Lions," has just opened, and they
also have a companion book of the same name, published by National
Geographic, and they are explorers-in-residence at the National
Geographic Society. They're based in Botswana.

So, you know, in the film, as we've been describing, the lioness that
you follow, her mate is killed in battle. And so she has to survive with
her cubs, without a mate. What does that mean for a lioness to no longer
have a mate?

Mr. JOUBERT: Well, the unusual part of this entire scenario is not only
does she not have a mate and a protector and the burden of these three
cubs, but she also doesn't have a pride. And that's very, very unusual
for lionesses.

Usually, you'll get a pride of eight lionesses, and then they pool their
cubs. So each one of them has cubs, they look after them up to a certain
point, and then all of them look after everybody's cubs.

So there's this double layer of protection against something going wrong
for these big, ultimate killers because they are in a very, very
dangerous profession, so to speak.

If they get injured, they can - if they were solitary, they would lose
those cubs very easily. And so for her, the stakes were doubly high. She
had lost her mate and her protector, and she had to go out and hunt -
very, very dangerous activity - and make sure that she didn't injured
long enough for her to have her cubs vulnerable and in jeopardy.

GROSS: So she basically stakes out new territory.

Mr. JOUBERT: Yeah, exactly. So she can't stay in this territory any
longer. It's been dominated by the incomers. And she has to find new
territory. And for her, that means new territory in an unknown place,
where there are no lions, and that is across the Duba River onto the
Duba island itself, and that's the beginning of this great adventure.

GROSS: So she tries to attack buffalo, and there are a lot of buffalo on
this island that she has crossed into. And so the buffalo have horns,
and the lioness has teeth. How do the horns and teeth match up as
weapons?

Ms. JOUBERT: Well, actually, that is the problem for the lioness. Those
horns are incredibly sharp, and if she doesn't attack from the back, she
will be ripped apart.

In fact, in Duba, not so long ago, we saw a whole pride of lions being
wiped out by buffalo purely because they weren't hunting from the back.
They were hunting from the front.

GROSS: It's like they didn't know how to do it yet?

Ms. JOUBERT: Exactly. They hadn't specialized in buffalo, and they were
probably hunting, you know, various other animals. But when they were
confronted with only one prey species, it was a challenge for them. And
of course, they severely - lost every member except one. So that was a
problem.

So her initial stages was having to learn how to hunt, and of course
right through the film, she studies them. You see that she's watching,
she's studying them, and she tries to take the calves because it was in
the calving season. It was fortunate for her that it was calving season
then. And she starts off with them.

But of course eventually, in the finale, she is hunting a male buffalo
bull.

GROSS: My guests are wildlife filmmakers Beverly and Dereck Joubert.
Their new documentary is called "The Last Lions." More after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Dereck and Beverly
Joubert, and they are wildlife filmmakers. They've made films about
elephants and big cats. Their new film is called "The Last Lions." And
there's a companion book of the same name. They live in Botswana, and
they are explorers-in-residence at the National Geographic Society.

One of the, I have to say, kind of heartbreaking sequences in the movie:
The lioness that we've been talking about, she returns to one of her
cubs, and he - his back is broken. And he can only, like, drag himself
with his front paws, and the rest of his body just lies limply as he
drags himself. And she finally turns away and leaves him.

And what is your understanding of why the lioness leaves her disabled
cub behind?

Mr. JOUBERT: Well, it's a moment in the film. And it is sad,
heartbreaking, although those sort of things have been going on for
three and a half million years, the three and half million years that
lions have been in their present shape and form in Africa. So it's very
hard for us to judge and to say what she was going through is wrong or
what her reaction it was wrong.

But what was interesting to us from the scene, and fortunately, the end
of the film has a happy ending, which sort of counterbalances this, but
what was interesting for us from the scene was that at that moment, we
had this incredible opportunity to have an insight into the potential
that these animals have real emotions.

You've seen the film, and so you know that there's a moment in there
where this lioness, on camera, blinks twice, closes her eyes and then
swallows deeply.

And while we can't anthropomorphize, we can certainly understand that
there's something going on and that I think it would be arrogant of us
to actually think that we have the exclusive rights on emotions. Animals
have emotions, as well, we just don't understand what form they take.

But for us, this moment in the film was much more about her reaction,
her struggling with that inevitable maternal instinct to stay and to
take care of the cub when she knew she didn't have that capability.

GROSS: Did it cross your mind that, well, maybe you should do something
to help save this cub? Or would that have been crossing a line for you?

Ms. JOUBERT: We made a policy years ago that we're out there to
document. And that's what we do. And we'll never intervene when it's a
natural situation. So when it's nature playing out its game, without
human interference, then we are completely hands-off and all we do is
document, even though it's painful.

But if we see a situation that is a man-made situation, for instance, an
animal falling into a man-made waterhole or a snared animal or poachers
shooting at animals, we do, we go straight in. We've had this happen
before where poachers have been shooting into elephants, and, you know,
not even thinking about our own safety, we've driven straight towards
them, straight, you know, to confront them and hopefully that they will
stop shooting.

These poachers on that particular day knew that they were in the wrong,
and they ran to the river, and they dropped their weapons and jumped
into a boat.

GROSS: Now, you know, we were talking about the lioness returning to her
cubs and having to abandon a cub who had a broken back. The pride of
lions that you followed, you say they killed over 90 cubs in about five
or six years. Why would lions kill their own cubs?

Mr. JOUBERT: Well, we don't know. But if you look at the opposite end of
that argument, which is had they not killed all those cubs, this
isolated island in the middle of Botswana in the Okavango, Duba Plains,
would now have 100 lions on it.

So clearly there has to be a natural weeding-out of some of the animals,
certainly some of the predators.

The fact that it's so unusual for these lionesses to kill cubs within
their own pride is indeed a mystery to us. We don't know why they are
doing it, and it's happening today, actually. So we don't know how long
it's going to carry on and if this is just something unique to this area
or to this pride.

Again, I don't think that we have exclusive rights on weirdness.

GROSS: And would - in this situation, does the lioness kill another
lion's cubs or kill her own?

Ms. JOUBERT: No.

Mr. JOUBERT: No, they never kill their own cubs. They always kill
another lioness's cubs. I also think that it could be a function of the
newness of the pride. They're sort of feeling each other out. There's
anxiety within the pride. Certainly it's an intense, intense situation.

It might be the fact that they're - on a daily basis, they're in these
intense situations with the buffalo. We don't know. But every now and
again, when we do film a mother lioness coming back and finding her cubs
killed, she sometimes eats those cubs, which is strange. But yeah, it's
a mystery.

GROSS: Now, do lions attack elephants?

Ms. JOUBERT: Yes, lions do attack elephants, but this also only happens
in various areas. And in fact, it hadn't been filmed until I think it
was around about 1995 that we captured it in Botswana, in the Savuti
region, and it was because there was an intense drought.

A lot of the animals had either died in the area or moved out, and it
was just breeding herds of elephants that were moving from one water
system, one river system, to the other that was about 70 kilometers
apart.

And in this area, the lions had to adapt. If they didn't adapt to
attempting to hunt elephants, they, too, would have died. And that's
exactly what happened. Over this period, we captured them hunting only
at nighttime, and they would first of all bring down some of the babies,
and then later they were bringing down a 12-year-old, and then we
eventually captured them trying to bring down a 21-year-old cow.

GROSS: Yeah, now, here's what I'm wondering. You know, you've seen the
world of nature through the eyes of lions and through the eyes of
elephants, and lions have attacked those elephants. So, like, do you
have shifting loyalties when you're watching these fights, depending on
whether the film is about elephants or whether the film is about lions?

Mr. JOUBERT: Well, no. You know, we've been doing this for a long time.
We've been doing this for 28 years, nearly 30 years now. And so we've -
we're totally comfortable with our emotions and the fact that we can be
emotionally distraught, one way or the other.

But all of these behaviors have been going on for so long. In the case
of the lion-elephant things, there's good evidence that lions in a
previous form, as saber-teeth Smilodons, were hunting mammoths. And so
these sort of behaviors have been going on a long time.

What our role is, is to be there, be in the right place, get it in
focus, document it and then maybe go one step further and, through the
writing and the script and maybe some of the camera work, show people a
little bit about what it was like to be there on the day.

Ms. JOUBERT: Absolutely. And I can tell you, Terry, we do take an
immense amount of pain. The emotional drain is huge. But often, we look
at - the only reason that we can bring it into the edited version is
because we've gone through that emotional drainage.

And so I believe it's probably good for us, although on the day, it
truly does hurt. It's like losing a family member. And it doesn't matter
if it's a lion or if it's an elephant. It truly hurts.

We have total respect for the end of an animal's life. We would never
celebrate and go: Yay, we've got it. You know, isn't that wonderful? We
totally do a little mourning ritual within ourselves just by being
silent and being very respectful.

GROSS: My guests are wildlife filmmakers Dereck and Beverly Joubert.
Their new documentary is called "The Last Lions." They'll be back in the
second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross, back with wildlife filmmakers Dereck
and Beverly Joubert. Their new documentary, “The Last Lions,” follows a
lioness who was left alone to feed and take care of her cubs after the
cub’s father is killed in battle with other lions. The Jouberts have a
companion book, also titled “The Last Lions.” The Jouberts live in tents
in Botswana and film from their customized vehicle. They work with the
National Geographic Society and are the Society’s explorers-in-
residence. You can see Beverly's photos of the lions we’re talking about
on our website, freshair.npr.org.

I know you don't like to anthropomorphize in your work. You don't like
to protect human emotions onto the animals. But some, you know, a few of
the films critics have pointed out that the narration seems to do just
that, to attribute some human emotions, you know, in a kind of human
kind of narrative to the story of the lions that you're following.

Mr. JOUBERT: Mm-hmm. Yeah. And I think that there's probably a
misunderstanding of anthropomorphism then. What we are very, very
careful about doing and have been through all of our films and in this
one as well and, in fact, it goes through a rigorous fact checking
process at National Geographic, is being very careful about how we deal
with what are obviously emotions within these animals. So we never, ever
say and I'll never write into a script, I'll never say, this animal is
feeling sadness and this animal is feeling hatred or any of those sort
of things.

What I tried to do very carefully is say we don't know about animal
emotions, but any mother who loses her young must be going through
something. And so I like to take people up to that point and then do a
handover because it's very, very obvious that these animals do have
emotions but exactly what form those emotions take I think is where
we've got to draw the line and stop short. Anybody who thinks that
humans are the only animals on the planet that have emotions clearly has
never had a dog or a cat or a bird.

GROSS: What’s the biggest risk you took for a shot in your new film “The
Last Lions?”

Mr. JOUBERT: Well, we have a fairly risky life so the biggest risk is
sort of off the charts. I think that probably it was in following the
lions across the river systems. This is a very, very tricky area to
operate in. It floods up and the lions have to swim a lot of the time.
To get unique shots we would push our vehicle in, push it to extremes,
and on one occasion I know we actually just had a new vehicle made for
us and we pushed that in, got deeper and deeper and deeper until
eventually the water was sort of mid-chest heart on me as I was sitting
driving. And then we hit deep water and got stuck, had the vehicle
lodged in the sand there and had to swim out to try and get a winch
cable across. But the riskiest part of that was that two days before we
had been filming some of the biggest crocodiles in the area right at
that spot. So there was no way of knowing where these crocodiles were,
and I've got to tell you that every little thing that brushed against my
legs as I was swimming out was a big croc in my mind.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So don't really know for sure what it was?

Mr. JOUBERT: We have no idea. I'm sure they were little fish.

Ms. JOUBERT: But, in fact, I often joke about that day because Dereck
truly did turn the vehicle into a submerged submarine. And it was hair-
raising for two reasons: We were losing all our camera gear. All our
camera gear went down with the vehicle and then, of course, we were
stuck in the water ourselves.

And so first of all, before we even tried to get ourselves out, we first
had to save the camera gear and that was hair-raising because we had to
open up these silver boxes that are attached to the vehicle, let more
water flood down all over them, and then throw them to the back of the
canvas roof that was sticking out. And, of course, we had no idea.

You know, two million dollars worth of camera gear, we had no idea if we
were going to save them or not and, of course, to have an insurance in
that amount of gear the way we live we wouldn't be able to afford it so
we didn't have insurance on it. But it was very fortunate that we saved
at least 85 percent of the gear.

GROSS: Was a lot of your footage within those cameras? I'm assuming they
are digital cameras.

Mr. JOUBERT: Just a days worth of shooting, so not that much.

GROSS: Okay. Yeah.

Mr. JOUBERT: So we were lucky in that regard.

Ms. JOUBERT: Yeah. In fact, we often joke that what we really lost was
our pride more than anything else and the lion pride.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOUBERT: Dignity and pride.

GROSS: So Beverly, while Dereck was swimming out to try to find a cable
to pull the vehicle back or to pull the vehicle out of a ditch. Yeah?

Mr. JOUBERT: This is a very, very good question, Terry.

Ms. JOUBERT: I’ll...

GROSS: The question I was going to ask before you praise it was where
were you, Beverly?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOUBERT: Yeah. This is a good question.

Ms. JOUBERT: Well, I was in the vehicle. I had climbed to the roof of
the vehicle because obviously, you know, putting all the gear up was
very important. I was fairly dry, but I was documenting. You know, it's
so important when situations like this happen to document. Often we’ve
lived through the most hair-raising situation and haven't managed to
capture it on film at all. And so this was my moment and my excuse to
not be in the water.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOUBERT: Beverly sort of brushed over the one part of that sentence
there, she was dry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So Dereck, you actually swam to shore, found a cable and pulled
out the vehicle from the rut it was in?

Mr. JOUBERT: Yeah. Well, rut is an understatement. Yeah, we eventually
managed to get the vehicle out of there. It took us a day but, and these
are the sort of things that we’re up against all the time. And
ironically, Terry, you know, it’s not the big things that will get you,
it's the little things. And in our lives there’ve been a lot of scorpion
stings, snake bites, malaria - I've had malaria four times. So it's
really those sort of things that will do you in. And it's ironic, you
know, we've spent more time with lions than we spent collectively at
school, university or with our parents...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOUBERT: ...and we’ve never been scratched by a lion, so obviously
we were in our comfort zone here.

GROSS: Beverly, you do the audio for the movie.

Ms. JOUBERT: Yes, that’s right.

GROSS: And the sound is great. For example, like the almost bark of the
young cubs, especially the young cub whose back is broken and who’s kind
of calling to his mother, they're such like interesting and emotional
sounds. And, of course, there’s the growls during at the beginning of
fights when the lions are really showing how tough they’re going to be
and trying to scare the other animals. How do you mic them?

Ms. JOUBERT: Terry, it is mainly with directional mics, like a 416
Sennheiser or an 816 Sennheiser. And, you know, I'm in the vehicle,
while Dereck is shooting I'll be doing the recording and then, of
course, also doing the photography. So I sort of juggle between the two.
And there are beautiful sounds. The lions are communicating amongst each
other all the time. If the lions have all been sleeping together for
hours we always know that we'll know when they get up, even if we've
taken a nap because there's that little call, that social call when they
rub heads and greet each other. And then, of course, when the cubs are
calling each other it's almost a, what I suppose, you know, cats are
doing a meow. But it’s their form. It really is this quite, sometimes
can be quite aggressive and sometimes quite whiny when the cubs are
demanding milk from Mau di Tau, but she is always aware of where they
are through their communications and they're always aware of where she
is because she’s communicating with them most of the time when they're
in close proximity.

Obviously, when she goes off hunting she doesn't communicate with them
at all. And then I think the fascinating with the audio is when the
lions start roaring and are communicating sort of five kilometers or
more with another pride, and that's really to say this is my territory,
back off, you can't come in here.

GROSS: And do you ever - is the audio always as good as the film quality
and vice versa or do you ever end up taking a growl that sounds better
from another scene and putting it in a scene that you're using?

Ms. JOUBERT: You know, often with the audio it is a challenge to get the
audio at all times, especially when there is a huge amount of activity
happening and I might be assisting Dereck to try and capture it, or as
well as trying to capture a still image as well and then sometimes I
would have to do that. But majority of the time we would need to get
what is there on the day otherwise, we might be miscommunicating what
the lions were saying on the day. Even though we don't understand lion
language we do try and get it as accurate as possible.

But often, you know, I could never get the tiny rustle of the grass or
those immense splatters as they're going off in the distance, so that's
when we'll bring in a Foley artist.

GROSS: My guests are wildlife filmmakers Beverly and Dereck Joubert.
Their new documentary is called “The Last Lions.”

More after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guests are Dereck and Beverly
Joubert. They are wildlife filmmakers and their new film is called “The
Last Lions” and it follows lions in an island in Botswana and they're
based in Botswana. They're also explores-in-residence at the National
Geographic Society.

Now your movie and your book are called “The Last Lions” and you're
concerned that lions may be becoming extinct. You'd like to see them put
on the endangered species list – wild lions. You say when you started
doing this kind of work, documenting large cats, there were about how
many lions then?

Mr. JOUBERT: Well, when Beverly and I were born roughly 50 years ago,
there were 450,000 lions and now those numbers are down to around
20,000. That represents a 90-95 percent decline. And so the reason that
we took on this book and the film was to try and get that message and
the preciousness of these individual lions that are now only 20,000
strong in front of a bigger audience, in front of people around the
world so that we can start having this conversation. Unless we start
talking about this, these lions will be extinct within the next 10 or 15
years, and that's not something that we're prepared to see happen on our
watch.

GROSS: Of the 20,000 lions that are left why only 4,500 male?

Mr. JOUBERT: Well, that’s the normal breakdown. So there’s a greater
drop-off rate of young males. So they're born at about 50-50; one male,
one female in the cub litter. But by the time the young males and young
females leave and go into their nomadic phase, the young females are
better prepared to hunt, the young males are less compared to hunt and
so they wander off and more young males die. When those males come back
into the system as resident male lions, the general breakdown is that
you might have - two male lions to a pride of eight or nine, 10 females.
And so that sort of settles then at that stage. And so, you’re right, of
the 20,000 we’ve got between 3,500 and 4,000 male lions left.

GROSS: So are you saying that the lionesses are more of the hunters than
the lions?

Mr. JOUBERT: Always are. Yes. The lionesses are better adapted to
hunting than males are.

GROSS: Why is that?

Mr. JOUBERT: Again, a lot of it has not to do with the fact that males
are lazy. I would never go on record saying that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOUBERT: But they're, you know, they've got these enormous black
manes a lot of the time and that just makes it harder for them to creep
up on other animals for a start. The manes make them about a certain
percentage, I think it's 12 percent less efficient because it keeps them
hotter and they've got relatively small hearts. The manes, of course,
are vitally important to them because it protects their necks and their
jugular vein structures doing fights. But the manes weigh against them
in the equality of hunting prowess.

GROSS: Now in terms of conservation you do your part in various ways,
not only by making the films but one of the things you say you've done
is to purchase lion and leopard hunting permits and then tear them up.
Is there like only a certain number of hunting permits that are allowed
to be given per year, so if you tear them up you’re eliminating somebody
else's opportunity to use that permit?

Mr. JOUBERT: Well, yes that was the idea and that's certainly something
that we were doing some years ago. As it happens now, you can't shoot a
male lion in Botswana. So the fantastic news is that all lions in the
Botswana now have maximum protection. There are a number of other
countries as well that are following suit. Very soon we won't even have
to go down this route, but governments issue a certain number of hunting
licenses and in places where those are inappropriate or if we feel that
we have some sort of influence and we can acquire those licenses then
they get taken off the market. But more and more that's not becoming
necessary now.

GROSS: You said that Botswana is African wildlife conservation’s model
citizen; Zimbabwe, the opposite. Would you compare Zimbabwe and Botswana
when it comes to the conservation of wildlife?

Mr. JOUBERT: Well, certainly. I think that, by the way, I think that may
have been in response to what we felt about what was going on in
Zimbabwe, but I think there are worse culprits in Zimbabwe, actually.
And in Botswana, of course, the entire system is working very, very
well, so somewhere between 35 and 40 percent of the entire country is
set aside for wildlife. That's enormous when you think of the global
average, which is way, way down. Is it as percent, Beverly, I think?

Ms. JOUBERT: Yes. Twelve percent of the land mass on the planet is
protected national parks.

Mr. JOUBERT: So, obviously in Botswana, way ahead of the game on that
and a very, very stable government. President Ian Khama, who is a
custodian of the wildlife and a very, very avid conservationist;
ministers, the minister of environment and wildlife is great. He
completely gets it, stable government, good economy and the small human
population, so 1.5, 1.7 million people. And so all of those sort of
factors work in favor of Botswana being the paradise for wildlife in
Africa.

Other countries have bigger problems. Kenya, for instance, has an
enormous human population and great pressure on its national parks. In
other places, there's no revenue streams so they turn to hunting, and in
particular, the hunting of these big cats and that's damaging in certain
cases.

GROSS: So you are married. You live in two tents in Botswana and you
live part-time in your vehicle as well. You see lots of animals, sounds
like you don't see a lot of people. Do you ever feel like you've become
disconnected from your own species as you watch wild animals?

Mr. JOUBERT: You know, I don't think so. I think we've been fairly
disciplined about the length of time that we spend in the field and then
coming out again. Obviously, when we edit a film like this we’re in town
for two years, that's how long it took us to edit “The Last Dance.” So
during that time, we were saturated with all of the cultural things that
we may be missing were out in the field for two years. For us,
certainly, this balance works very very well.

Ms. JOUBERT: But I think what we practice and it's really what
philosophers and poets have always done, they would remove themselves
from the hustle and bustle and chaos of humanity and be in a quiet
place. And that's really what we do. We are able to reflect and to
connect and see where we're going as a society. And then when we're in
society, you know, we obviously are able to see what the importance is
of certain things are and where we might be misleading ourselves. And so
I think it's really important to actually have the balance. I think
everybody should have the balance, but it wouldn't have to necessarily
be the balance that we have that is more of nature.

GROSS: So in the years that you’ve been making wildlife movies, you've
witnessed, you say, a few thousand kills. Would you compare your
reaction the first few times you saw a wild animal kill another animal
to what your reaction is now?

Mr. JOUBERT: Interesting. I think that the first time was adrenaline
fueled, highly anxiety driven moment for both of us, maybe more so for
Beverly. And it is like an amazing ride but also it's a real privilege
to be there at the moment of transfer of energy from a live form to a
dead form. And also, it's similar to what happens at a birth, actually.
You've seen something change in the planet. And today I don't think much
has changed for us. I think each one of these moments is precious and
we, as Beverly said early on, we sit back and we're quiet, we pay
reverence to it. We never have any sort of graveyard humor about it,
definitely. But we certainly recognize the importance of any death.

GROSS: I want to thank you both very much for talking with us.

Ms. JOUBERT: Terry, thank you. We really appreciate it.

Mr. JOUBERT: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Dereck and Beverly Joubert have a new wildlife documentary and a
companion book, both are titled “The Last Lions.” You can see a
slideshow of Beverly's photos of lions on our website freshair.npr.org.

Coming up, book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews the new novel “Pym,”
that updates at Edgar Allan Poe's only novel.

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In 'Pym,' A Comic Glimpse Into Poe's Racial Politics

(Soundbite of music)

TERRY GROSS, host:

Mat Johnson is a biracial writer whose work often satirizes racial
issues in America. His novel “Hunting in Harlem” took up the topic of
gentrification. His graphic novel “Incognegro” is a noir ystery that
investigated the subject of passing. Johnson's new novel is called “Pym”
and if that title rings a bell, it’s because Edgar Allan Poe used it
first.

Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review of Johnson's updating of Poe's
only novel.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN: If all you think of when you think of Edgar Allan Poe
are poems like "The Raven," or tales of terror like "The Fall of the
House of Usher," you might not realize that Poe was a funny guy. I'm not
talking belly laughs, but more a creepy comic vision that savored the
absurd in desperate situations - like an annoying corpse whose darn
heart just won't stop thumping; or - spoiler alert - a whodunit where
the killer turns out to be an orangutan. It's this strain of ghastly
humor in Poe that Mat Johnson mines in his new novel, “Pym,” an
inventive and socially sassy play on Poe's one and only novel: “The
Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.”

Poe published “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym” in 1838, trying, as
always, to make some money from his writing by cashing in on the
public's thirst for novels and newfound curiosity about Antarctica.
Masquerading as authentic journal entries, the tale chronicles the
voyages of a young seafarer, Pym, who suffers through mutiny, shipwreck
and cannibalism. But, buried alive deep in Poe's icy adventure tale, is
the ultimate scary subject in 19th-century American literature: slavery.

“The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym” keeps hallucinating about race: a
black crew member heads the mutiny; Pym and some survivors of the
shipwreck drift to an island near the blinding whiteness of the South
Pole, where, lo and behold, all the inhabitants are black. Even their
teeth are black, and these folks are terrified of whiteness. At the
abrupt end of Poe's novel, a giant white-shrouded figure rises up out of
a frozen chasm and well, that's all he wrote.

Not surprisingly, the fragmented jumble of “The Narrative of "a very
silly book. Silly, certainly, and also haunted by the specter of race.
As a black writer, Mat Johnson has a blast chasing all the pale ghosts
out of Poe's ice caverns and updating this master text of anxious white
fright.

In Johnson's “Pym,” our hero, Chris Jaynes, is a professor of African-
American literature, or, as he calls himself, a Professional Negro. When
the novel opens, Jaynes has just been denied tenure for refusing to
serve on his college's diversity committee and for going off the farm,
as he puts it, to teach a course on his passion, the work of Edgar Allan
Poe. The course, in a twist on a Toni Morrison title, is called "Dancing
With the Darkies: Whiteness in the Literary Mind," and Jaynes explains
its focus this way.

My work, it's about finding the answer to why we have failed to truly
become a postracial society. It's about finding the cure. A thousand
Baldwin and Ellison essays can't do this, you have to go to the source,
that's why I started focusing on Poe. If we can identify how the
pathology of whiteness was constructed, then we can learn how to
dismantle it.

The college doesn't buy Jaynes' rap about the key to America's race
problem lying in classic white texts. Instead, he’s promptly replaced
with a hip-hop theorist. But Jaynes is undaunted. He decides to re-
create the voyage of Poe's hero, Arthur Gordon Pym. Like Pym, Jaynes
literally seeks to travel to the source of pure whiteness - the South
Pole - but this time in the company of an all-black crew. Jaynes has
found a manuscript that suggests that the lost black civilization near
the Pole that Poe described in his novel might be real, and he wants to
make contact. But instead, he and his crew discover a prehistoric world
of giant white people, or snow honkies, who enslave them.

I'll stop there, but Johnson's inventiveness never does. This is a comic
nightmare in which Little Debbie Snack Cakes and the luminous paintings
of a Thomas Kinkade-like schlock artist play crucial roles. Johnson even
comes up with intra-racial jokes about global warming: one black guy
trekking through the tundra with Jayne surveys a crack in the South Pole
ice, and immediately denies responsibility by saying: ain't our fault.
It was all them Escalades in the ghetto.

Loony, disrespectful and sharp, Mat Johnson's “Pym” is a welcome riff on
the surrealistic shudder-fest that is Poe's original. As Johnson
implicitly points out, these traditional heart of darkness narratives
take on a whole different hue when the explorer's telescope is seized by
other hands.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed the novel “Pym” by Mat Johnson.

You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org.

(Soundbite of song by Sonny Rollins)

Mr. SUNDAY ROLLINS (Jazz saxophonist and composer): (Instrumental)

GROSS: Jazz saxophonist and composer Sonny Rollins is one of the 10
recipients of the National Medal of the Arts, presented today by
President Obama at the White House. Other recipients include: Van
Cliburn, Quincy Jones, Meryl Streep, poet Donald Hall, theater critic
Robert Brustein and writer Harper Lee. So we are joining in the
festivities by closing with a Sonny Rollins recording from 1958.

I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of song by Sonny Rollins)
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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