2021’s Big Cat Month on National Geographic Wild (DStv channel 182) kicks off with Dereck and Beverly Joubert’s Jade Eyed Leopard, which follows a feisty leopard cub named Toto from the moment of birth through the first 3 years of her life. The annual celebration of these amazing animals comes to us thanks to the Jouberts’ partnership with National Geographic on the Big Cat Initiative project, which started 11 years ago. It has led to major conservation wins including removing 13,000 life-threatening snares from their habitats; building more than 2,100 livestock enclosures to reduce human-wildlife conflict; and providing funds for people who’ve come onboard the Big Cat project to work in more than 300 communities.
We spoke to Dereck and Beverly about filming Toto, how the Big Cat documentaries are helping conservation efforts, and how their new cameras are changing the game.
In the beginning…
How did you find out about Toto's mother, Fig, giving birth under one of the tents (they’re on raised wooden platforms) at Mara Nyika Camp in Kenya?
Dereck: We were in and out of that camp all the time, and we had some help. First of all, the monkeys started squealing down near tent number 5, and we realised that it was either going to be a snake or something like that. We found Fig the leopard moving around camp and ultimately going in under that tent. It's interesting that she is so, so relaxed in camps like this. In fact, we were at our other camp there up until about 3 weeks ago and Fig, Toto's mother, has given birth to 2 more cubs, this time not underneath a tent, but on top of it! She’s been using it until recently, and the cubs were using it as a hammock! They were sliding down it and clawing their way up again. The whole family is very familiar with civilisation and our assets in the bush.
Beverly: We see it as a huge privilege because a predator would (normally) see us as a threat, but she (Fig) has never been threatened by us or harmed by man. She uses our camp as protection for her cubs against all the other predators and even against the cattle herders that move through that area.
Where did you spend most of your time with the camera when Toto was a baby?
Dereck: We were in a camp, so we were sleeping there, but then you have to be very sensitive around young leopards in particular. I have a lens that's a 50-1,000mm lens, so we can be quite some way off. I'd say on average 30 to 40 metres away. The angle for filming underneath the tent or on the roof, in this case now (with Fig’s new cubs), is always awkward. You have to be a little bit closer. But we were fortunate again in that she moved into our space, not us moving into her space, so she was far more accepting of us moving around.
Beverly: The biggest challenge was that we have a high rainfall in the area, and it was an exceptional year with high floods. That gorge that filled up and flooded the camp? The Masai people said that hadn't happened in 100 years. But now it's happening more frequently, and it's clearly because of the environmental changes that we as man have created on this planet. We are seeing heavier rainfalls, and where the rain is coming from, the area has been deforested, so of course it's coming down with a huge amount of silt and it's creating havoc. It was amazing, though. The leopard (Fig) heard the roar and knew in advance that she needed to take her cub to higher ground. She probably knew before we all did, because we lost a huge part of that camp in the flood.
Where were you standing to film during the flood?
Beverly: It was on a higher bank or in the water at the time, or we tried to get onto some of the decks. Very soon after that, we had to close the camp down completely and everything was moved. She (Fig) moved, too, so we followed in our vehicle from then on.
Dereck: A few weeks later we had to go downstream and buy a whole bunch of our stuff back from the Masai.
Beverly: (Beverly laughs) That was quite entertaining. They had found the big railway sleeper table halfway down the river. Then we couldn't find the legs of the chairs and somebody else had the legs of the chairs. They made a lot of money out of us!
Filming something fragile
When you start following an animal like Toto to tell a story about them, what are some of your greatest fears?
Dereck: There are two big fears. One is that the animal will die before we finish the film, the other, that we will die before we finish the film. It's gone either way on occasions (Beverly nearly died and Dereck was seriously wounded during a buffalo encounter in 2017). But what we do is that we invest in nature as opposed to the individual animal. We let nature determine the story rather than trying to force a story that we might have in our heads onto a situation. A really good example of that was we made a film called The Last Lions (2011). We really wanted to follow these male lions, and within the first 3 months of us filming them, the lions were killed. So we decided to simply follow the male lions' cubs. You've got to be agile and adaptable, and just go with the story that presents itself. And there are always stories.
Beverly: Another great example is 1 of our earlier films with National Geographic, Eternal Enemies (2006). Our idea was that we were going to follow a lioness and her cubs and then a matriarch hyena and her pups. We wanted to show them in parallel. And what happened very early on is the lioness's cubs were killed by a cobra and so we lost the cubs straight away. We were devastated. We were already invested in her as a family with these gorgeous cubs. We thought, “Oh, here's our film gone.” But we went with the flow. We went with the new story. It was, ultimately, probably a better film because you could see the hardship that animals have to go through on a daily basis in the wild. It always reminds us that they go through all that hardship of nature and then, of course, man comes along and is destructive, too. We need to remind ourselves, constantly, that animals go through a journey that is quite a challenge for them to survive out in the wild.
How often have you lost animals that you have known and followed for years to human activity?
Dereck: It stretches across lions, leopards, and elephants that we have known that have been snared or killed by man. A lot. A lot.
Beverly: If we think of our films, with Lions of Darkness (2008), there were 3 beautiful male lions. These territorial male lions captivated everybody. They couldn't believe the size of them, the affection that they had, the incredible social bond with each other. After screening the film with the then-government of Botswana in the early 1990s, The President (then Ian Khama) said, “My gosh! I am coming to your camp to be able to see these lions.” We straightaway said, “You can't.” He looked absolutely in horror that we were denying him the chance to see his own lions in Botswana. But we said, “You can't, because they've already been killed.” They were shot by safari hunters. They (the lions) had ventured into the hunting area. You can imagine we were devastated by it, but so was the President at the time, and he changed the policies to reduce the number in which lions could be killed. And later they stopped all lion hunting. Our films do and may have an impact when they are seen in the countries where they are made. The government often takes them and uses them as a scientific document of what is happening, which is wonderful to know.
A delight for the ears and eyes
Jade Eyed Leopard uses high-resolution thermal imaging cameras to show us life in the bush by night, too. Hot areas from living animals show up white against a dark background, so it’s like seeing a photonegative, but sharper and clearer. It allows you to easily pick out animals from the surrounding plants they’re moving about in. And because of the way it works, it gave Dereck and Beverly another way of filming without disturbing the nature they were capturing on camera.
What did you enjoy most when you saw images from the new thermal imaging cameras?
Dereck: Great, isn't it, hey? I think the amazing thing about that is that it's not just looking at animals at night, it's looking at them from the inside. It's looking at their heat. I remember an early image that we were looking at where a male lion was roaring and heating up the grass in front of him, which then turned white on the thermal – his breath painted the grass. It's great to see rocks glowing at night from the day’s heat, and the termite mounds glowing with all that termite energy. It's amazing, it's like a sci-fi movie.
Beverly: It's a challenge to film because you're filming in the dark. But then viewing and editing it makes you lean forward (to see more), because you've got this very dark canvas that illuminates everything that has heat. That's what I love about it: You're now focussed on the energy of that animal. It's a little ghost-like in so many ways. It's captivating. We never want to disturb an animal when filming. Our policy is not to intervene in a situation that is natural, but at the same time we don’t want the animals to be aware that we are there. So filming at night time with the thermal is one way that the animal has no idea and you don't have to put lights on that will affect every other animal in the area.
Dereck: It is certainly the best way that we have come across to get a view beyond that nocturnal veil and into the heart and soul of what makes these animals what they are.
And finally, what’s it like hearing Jeremy Irons’ voice telling Toto’s story?
Dereck: I've just done the mathematics: We've done 9 films with Jeremy. We’re completing each other’s… well, he's completing my sentences. (Dereck laughs). Every now and again, as I'm talking to Beverly, I slip into Jeremy Irons' voice. It's actually wonderful. When I write, I am writing with Jeremy's voice in my head anyway. We were just saying a little earlier that working with Jeremy is fantastic because it's a back and forth. I write the script and then on the day that we show up to the studio, Jeremy takes direction nicely and easily, and he wants to understand every single sentence. We make some changes according to the way that he speaks, as opposed to the way that I might write.
Beverly: The only sadness about it (with this film) is because of the pandemic, although we were fortunate that we could still make it happen, is that we had to challenge technology and record him in London via Zoom. But it worked, and we realised that we don’t have to travel the world all the time to be able to do what we always thought was so pressing, to be there in person. And he's an ultimate storyteller, which we've loved. He was also actually relaxed because he wasn't on set somewhere else on another film. So he really did absorb every aspect of the nature that came out of Jade Eyed Leopard.
Dereck: A great Jeremy story is the first time we worked with him 15 years ago or so, Jeremy and I were going through the script together when Beverly came in and said, “Jeremy can I just say…” and he said, “Woah, woah, woah, stop! My dear girl, if this is going to be a compliment, please sit down and take your time.” (Dereck and Beverly both laugh)
Coming up in Big Cat Month
Book your seat for the following National Geographic Wild (DStv 182) documentary specials aimed at inspiring viewers around the world to understand, value and protect the big cats:
Jade Eyed Leopard on Sunday, 7 February at 18:00
South African wildlife filmmakers Dereck and Beverly Joubert follow a remarkable little Leopard named Toto from the day she’s born, through her first 3 years of life as she picks up all the skills she will need to survive. Besides getting incredibly close to the leopards, we’ll see Africa’s nightlife as never before, thanks to the use of thermal imaging cameras that show animals moving about in jaw-dropping detail.
Cecil: The Legacy of A King on Sunday, 14 February at 18:00
The world went into an uproar and then deep mourning when Cecil the Lion (subject of a long-term research project by scientists from Oxford University) was shot, beheaded and skinned by an American big game trophy hunter and dentist, Walter Palmer. This documentary takes us into Cecil’s 13 years as a warrior, brother and father, and the impact that his death had on conservation and on his surviving pride and cubs.
Serengeti Speed Queen on Sunday, 21 February at 18:00
Nzuri the cheetah is the speed queen of the Serengeti. But cheetahs inhabit an uncomfortable niche in the hierarchy of predators on the African savannah, with both lions and hyenas hunting them and their cubs. When 2 of Nzuri’s cubs are killed, she flees into the forest with her remaining cubs and learns to adapt her hunting strategies to stop relying solely on speed, becoming an expert strategist.
Tiger Queen of Taru on Sunday, 28 February at 18:00
Maya the tigress is something of a celebrity in Tadoba, Central India. Award-winning filmmaker Aishwarya Sridhar has remarkable footage gathered from her friends (footage that include a fight with a sloth bear and encounters with wild dogs), as well as original footage shot by Sridhar which tells Maya’s life story from her birth and the tragedy of losing her first litter of cubs to her rise as the most successful tigress in the park.
Watch Big Cat Month Sundays on National Geographic Wild (DStv 182) at 18:00.
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