Dereck Joubert, talking on the phone from New York’s Lincoln Center alongside his filmmaker wife Beverly Joubert, says the traffic in New York is brutal. HIs word.
”It’s the reason we’re late,” he says simply, and it’s not hard to imagine the traffic being a shock to the system after years living in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, filming, photographing and studying the vast ecosystem’s natural rhythms.
The Jouberts are talking to me for my day job: Their three-part, four-years-in-the-making nature film Okavango: River of Dreams is about to make its North American television debut, Wednesday on PBS’s Nature showcase, and while they don’t need the publicity exactly, it can’t hurt. (An account our conversation specific to the film can be found at TVWorthWatching.com, linked here: http://www.tvworthwatching.com/post/Life-and-Death-in-the-Long-Grass-PBS-Nature-Takes-Viewers-Into-the-Heart-of-the-African-Wilderness-in-Epic-Three-Part-Miniseries.aspx
They’re running late, owing to the kind of traffic that’s impossible to imagine from a wilderness area some 15,000 kms² (5,800 sq miles), but once they start talking about their life’s passion, it’s hard to let go. They have a meeting to get to, with executives of PBS’s New York affiliate WNET — part of the international consortium that financed River of Dreams — but more than 30 minutes later, Dereck and Beverly Joubert are still talking. The meeting will just have to wait.
The Okavango, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, faces many of the same issues — climate change, habitat loss, human encroachment — the rest of the natural world faces.
Lately, though, the Okavango has had to deal with a whole new challenge.
The government of Botswana has lifted a five-year ban on elephant hunting, owing to growing conflict between humans and the animals, which sometimes destroy crops, and the Jouberts are agitated and annoyed.
Dereck Joubert has actively campaigned against hunting at international symposiums chaired by big players CITES, IUCN, SADC and the UN, while Beverly Joubert has made numerous documentary programs about the subject. The pair are Explorers-in-Residence at National Geographic, and have devoted most of their working lives to studying and getting to know elephants in their natural habitat. Botswana is home to some 130,000 elephants — the world’s largest population — of an animal increasingly under threat around the world.
Dereck Joubert doesn’t pull any punches in his disdain for anyone who’d want to shoot an elephant for the trophy wall, and he’s unafraid to say so out loud. He’s long past the point of social niceties and diplomacy on the subject, even though, around the world, environmental activists are increasingly harassed, threatened and even murdered for speaking out, whether it’s against misuse of power or just old-fashioned greed.
Trophy hunting is just not on, as far as the Jouberts are concerned, regardless of any arguments against.
Joubert has heard the economic argument so often that it’s now like a red flag to a bull, as far as he’s concerned.
“The economics of it all don’t make any sense. People say, ‘Well, the money that I spend, that I give to go and act selfishly, protects the elephants from a broader, relatively intangible threat.’
That is not the motivation. The motivation is that you’re going out there to kill it for yourself. Nobody’s going out there to kill it because they hate killing and they want to do something for conservation. The core of this is a selfish act. And in my opinion, that’s morally bankrupt.”
Beverly Joubert — still recovering from serious injuries she sustained while filming buffalos in the middle of the night, ironically enough — is equally blunt in her own assessment.
“I really do believe we should all be living in harmony with nature,” she says simply. “Too often I think people forget that we’re just another species on the planet. I suspect that those who go out to kill are trying to be that superior ape. Well, we can be the superior ape. We have the intelligence. But we can live side-by-side with them, and respect them, without having to kill them. That’s what intelligence is.”
Beverly Joubert is worried what will happen now that the hunting ban has been lifted. The new rules come into effect in the new year.
“When the ban was originally enacted we had areas where life came back in a glorious way. We felt that this was what a paradise on earth should be like. And now it’s going to go through another change, and that’s concerning. The change will be man-made, and that’s something we need to be watching. The Okavango is, in almost every way, a wonderful base-line study area for nature. We’re going to be able to see if there is extreme damage.”
The larger picture — climate change — is creating its own problems, because everything is tied to habitat loss.
“We had a screening of the film last night, and
those questions came up from the audience as well.
“They were all wondering how the climate crisis is going to affect Africa. Well, it’s happening. It’s definitely there. We’ve seen it in the violent storms around the globe, and it’s very evident in Botswana. Temperatures are rising every year. Every year, we get the next record high. And now we’re in a drought again, in many parts of Africa.
“There are a lot or profound changes going on, and obviously the environment is one of them. Okavango is really one of the last pristine places left on the planet. We have seen it in a state of flux, through man, over the last 30 years. Areas of the Okavango that used to be hunted lost a huge population of wildlife, and that was very evident and really concerning. That’s why the former president stopped all hunting.”
The Jouberts’ stay in New York has coincided with a series of climate conferences and protests, from the UN to Wall Street. In Botswana, the Jouberts established the Great Plains Foundation which, as part of its remit, works with young people locally to help further the message of conservation. They have never met Greta Thunberg, but it’s only a matter of time before her name comes up in conversation.
“We’re big fans of Greta,” Dereck Joubert says. “What is interesting about that question is that, through Great Plains, we spend quite a bit of time and money and effort working with children around Greta’s age, funnily enough, in Botswana, looking for and nurturing that voice of, not innocence, but that voice of outrage in a child’s way to say that, no, this is not okay. The children have rights, too. They have a right to the future. More and more, we’re starting to hear that in the villages in Botswana.”