Bringing Conservation Into Focus: The Last Lions
In the new wildlife adventure, The Last Lions, filmmakers Dereck and Beverly Joubert follow the epic journey of a lioness named Ma di Tau (“Mother of Lions”) as she battles to protect her cubs against a daunting onslaught of enemies in order to ensure their survival.
The gripping real-life saga unfolds inside a stark reality: Lions are vanishing from the wild. In the last 50 years, lion populations have plummeted from 450,000 to as few as 20,000. The Jouberts weave their dramatic storytelling and breathtaking, up-close footage around a resonating question: Are Ma di Tau and her young to be among the last lions? Or will we as humans, having seen how tough, courageous and poignant their lives in the wild are, be moved to make a difference?
So, what will you do?
Here are three simple things you can do to help lions:
1. Watch The Last Lions trailer. For every view on YouTube, National Geographic will donate 10¢ to big cat conservation in Botswana. Pass it on!
2. Learn more about Africa’s iconic lions and what you can do to help. Share the story of Ma di Tau with your friends, families and neighbors! Share it with your social networks on Facebook and Twitter!
3. Give! Donate $10 to the Big Cats Initiative, to support on-the-ground conservation initiatives for our wild feline friends, by texting LIONS to 50555. Do your part! (Click here for Terms & Conditions)
And of course, see the film! Together we can save the last lions!
THE LAST LIONS
From the lush wetlands of Botswana’s Okavango Delta comes the suspense-filled tale of a determined lioness ready to try anything and willing to risk everything to keep her family alive. Fleeing a raging fire and a rival pride headed by the cub-killing lioness, Silver Eye, Ma di Tau and her cubs make their perilous escape by swimming a crocodile-infested river. Remote Duba Island is a refuge, but it is also a strange new world for them to conquer. There, Ma di Tau must face off with the island’s herd of fierce buffalo whose huge, slashing horns are among the most dangerous weapons in Africa. The buffalo herd is one of her biggest threats, but also one of her best hopes for survival. Yet, even as Ma di Tau faces escalating dangers and devastating loss, she becomes part of a stunning turning point in the power dynamics on the island, as she brings a rival pride together in a titanic primal bid to preserve the thing that matters most: the future of her bloodline.
The Making of “The Last Lions”
The stirring drama of a mother lion’s battle to keep her family safe from enemies and rivals, only to become a leader of a powerful new pride of lionesses, is brought to life by Dereck and Beverly Joubert. This husband-and-wife team has spent their lives immersed in the raw, unseen experiences of African animals, capturing breathtaking stories. They have been photographing, filming, and learning about wild lions for three decades. The duo is so renowned for their probing, often poetic, insider’s view of lions that one of their documentaries was screened for Disney animators as inspiration for the heartfelt emotionality of “The Lion King”. Now, with “The Last Lions”, the Jouberts bring to the big screen a story that is, for them, not just an epic, cinematic adventure full of thrills and natural wonders, but is also their personal love letter to a legendary pride of lions they have come to feel part of and to know so well.
“We realized, in fact, her lessons were our lessons,” Dereck Joubert writes about Ma di Tau in The Last Lions book, which accompanies the film (ISBN: 978-1-4262-0779-2, published by National Geographic and now available wherever books are sold). “Her struggle was our struggle, her battles were our battles. Perhaps this is consistent with any study of the natural world anywhere.”
In sharing Ma di Tau’s story, the Jouberts allow audiences to share the emotions they themselves experienced while observing the lioness overcome adversity: awe, fear, serenity, tenderness, violence, affection, suspense, joy, sadness, courage, and most of all, the life-sustaining strength of familial bonds. The film also offers unprecedented access to the visually spectacular, yet endangered, Duba Island that has been the Jouberts’ home in Botswana for the last seven years. Here on an isolated spit of land, at one of the most remote human camps in the Okavango Delta, the Jouberts have had a rare experience: witnessing the formation and evolution of a lion pride, like no other in Africa.
The nine lionesses of the Tsaro pride that crossed the delta to Duba Island defy much of what was thought to be true about these African icons. Lions generally loathe water, but these ones swim. Lions are said to hunt in the cool of the evening, but these ones head into action at the height of the scorching, midday heat. Lions typically stalk a wide range of prey, favoring medium-sized herbivores, such as impala and gazelle. Yet these ones hunt just one species–the fierce, massive buffalo–deploying specialized techniques to outmaneuver the beasts that outweigh full-grown lionesses by five times or more. They also stand out as Africa’s largest, most muscular female lions, a physical testimony to the prowess their lives on Duba Island require.
Living among the lions of this remote location, the Jouberts watched in amazement as Ma di Tau and the Tsaro pride learned to thrive under unusual conditions. However, they’ve also been aware that all African lions face increasing threats to their very existence, as human populations push them further and further into smaller corners of the wild, where their chances of survival keep falling.
In the face of all of this, the Jouberts have their own fresh perspective on why lions speak so powerfully to the human experience, why these noble creatures have played a central role in our fairy tales, myths, and metaphors, and most importantly, why their continued existence in the wild means so much to humanity.
As Dereck writes of lions in the introduction of his book: “We love them, we hate them, we admire them and perhaps we wish we were more like them. We know that our souls, the very essence of what makes us human, would shrivel if they disappeared. ‘The Last Lions’ is a film designed to make us think about that paradise where lions live by taking a journey with them.”
The filmmakers’ have been able to follow the lionesses into situations rarely viewed by anyone else, and have become familiar with each lioness as an individual with a distinct personality. The Jouberts have been tracking several of the lionesses that formed the Tsaro pride since before the animals made their escape to Duba Island. This is how they came to know Ma di Tau. At first, she was a rare female loner, seemingly separated from the group. She gave birth to a litter of cubs in the midst of an inter-pride struggle for power, but became the first lion to cross the delta, attempting to bring her cubs to safety and to find prey so she could produce milk to feed them.
“This was a very rare opportunity for us as filmmakers to capture the incredible story of one lioness who found herself in an overwhelmingly difficult struggle to survive and to keep her cubs alive,” says Dereck.
Some of the film’s most revealing footage captures Ma di Tau at the center of an astonishing phenomenon on Duba Island: lionesses coming together to hunt the towering buffalo. With a common purpose, they coordinate their efforts, splitting the herd and isolating the weak in ways that speak to the mysteries of their communication. All of it achieved without so much as a sound made between them.
“Somehow, perhaps in the same way that two people find a common purpose just by being together for a long time, the lions seem to reach a level of knowingness without seeming to communicate visually or vocally. They move into a hunt as if they have a map in their hearts that each knows – a map of each hunt, a map of every move that they have traced either in their minds or by experience time and time again,” the Jouberts write in The Last Lions.
The Jouberts hope to bring the audience deep into the lions’ perspective–into their most fearsome, comical, mysterious, and poignant moments–in order to make the mere thought of their permanent loss from the wild completely unacceptable. Though the Jouberts’ inquisitive cameras capture the lions as they are, the couple does not discount that the lions themselves experience emotions, albeit in a way we likely cannot fathom. They leave the question open.
“Clearly all animals have feelings like fear, a very useful emotion, so why not joy and even love?” writes Dereck.
At the same time, the filmmakers do not shy away from the harsh, often starkly violent, realities of life as an apex predator. Indeed, in the last few years of filming at Duba, the Jouberts note that they have witnessed thousands of kills by lions. Some even tore at their hearts when they involved buffalo they had come to know by sight. Yet there is no escaping the fact that lions must eat, or that the only way for them to eat is to kill. So, the Jouberts attempt to lay bare, in “The Last Lions”, the cycle of life and death that allows the demise of one young animal to become the survival of another.
The dynamic nature of lions has taught the Jouberts to move with a speed that would be impossible in conventional filmmaking, and this speed has been enhanced by a new generation of lightweight digital cameras that can be used on the fly, in the most extreme of conditions. After three decades of experience shooting in the bush, the couple has come to expect the unpredictable ways that a day can turn from long and dull to suddenly offering a chance to capture something never before seen on film.
Sometimes the special moments they captured came with heartbreak, as when the cameras caught Ma di Tau in a mother’s most harrowing moment, calling for her missing cub, only to find it with a grievous wound. But they could not deny what Ma di Tau had experienced in her own animal way.
“She seemed to accept that deep rip in her heart or soul or wherever emotion lies,” writes Dereck. “And yet what do we know about animal emotion? At best, I can say that we don’t know anything, but it is highly unlikely that we are the only species that feels emotion. What is there to say over a scene that speaks so universally by itself?”
About the Filmmakers
Award-winning filmmakers Dereck and Beverly Joubert have been filming, researching, and exploring in Africa for over 28 years. Filmmaking for them has always been a way to bring the message of conservation to the world. Their coverage of unique predator behavior has resulted in 22 films, ten books, six scientific papers, and many articles for National Geographic magazine. This body of work has resulted in five Emmys, a Peabody Award, the World Ecology Award, and recent induction into the American Academy of Achievement. They have also been awarded the Presidential Order of Merit by the government of Botswana.
It is the Jouberts’ belief that while some areas need the wilderness to be maintained in isolation, other areas will disappear unless viable, extremely light-ecological-footprint (low-volume, high-cost) benefits are generated for communities. Their recent ventures into responsible tourism aim to rehabilitate the environment and return these vast tracts of land to nature.
However, it is big cats that attract their major effort today. The duo has been instrumental in establishing the Big Cats Initiative, a program with National Geographic designed as an emergency action fund to draw attention to big cats and to develop real solutions to stop the decline that has seen lion numbers rapidly falling over the past 50 years.
“We no longer have the luxury of time when it comes to big cats,” says Dereck. “They are in such a downward spiral that if we hesitate now, we will be responsible for extinctions across the globe. If there was ever a time to take action, it is now.”
Read the full story here.
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