“This is about death.” Dereck Joubert summed up his 2011 African nature documentary, The Last Lions, which filmed massive predators (many adults weigh up to 450 pounds) at the pinnacle of their evolutionary development doing what they are born to do: kill. Trying to survive another day’s hunger, a lion simply hunts until someone dies, whether a zebra or buffalo or wildebeest. It is the way of Africa: “There are those who hunt and those who feed the hunters.”
The husband and wife team of Dereck and Beverly Joubert have spent more than 30 years filming, photographing and writing about lions, leopards, elephants, hyenas, zebras and buffalo, mainly in Botswana’s Okavango Delta. Fifty years ago, there were about 450,000 lions on the whole African continent. Today, there are between 16,000 and 23,000. Out of this number, there are probably no more than 4,000 males.
The behavior and hunting style of lions changes depending on where they live: some prides hunt only buffalo during daylight hours in east Africa; others prefer elephant hunting at night in Chobe National Park. When migrations pass through home territories, resident prides focus on zebra and wildebeest, but lions seem to prefer buffalo. One thing is certain. Every day, predators must hunt prey until they succeed.
For many, the high point of watching this ancient sad struggle is the killing. But the Jouberts, though devoted observers of Africa’s harshness, and long bearing witness to some of the most violent moments of its natural history, have determined that the real beauty of predators lie in their social behavior. Female lions, for example, “spend every day of their lives with each other with few separations in a lifetime of about twelve years.” They raise their young communally, mothers and cubs moving through the forest in peaceful duets while males wander on the outskirts alone looking for threats to their pride. While lionesses are known for cooperative living and hunting, nothing is more symbolic on this continent than a lone male patrolling his pride’s territory. He seldom hunts or even participates in a hunt but always dominates the first feed. For the Jouberts, this proud dignified loyal head of the family truly owns Africa.
It is hard to comprehend the level of discomfort and inconvenience the South African couple has endured during their many decades of creating award-winning nature documentaries (The Last Lions; Eternal Enemies: Lions and Hyenas; Zebras: Patterns in the Grass; Stolen River). Imagine, for example, finding oneself somewhere within 40,000 square miles of wilderness ensconced in a specially converted Toyota Land Cruiser, being lulled to sleep by the soft deep breathing of heavily muscled lions feeding on zebra, punctuated with occasional growling and crunching of bones.
You began the day in a cold flooded marsh after a night of wind and rain. You are soaked to the skin. Suddenly, lions are on the move and you have to follow them for hours through the bush. Driving through scrub in a vehicle with no windows or roof, wet branches slapping your face, cold water spraying everywhere, stinging welts across your cheeks. At dusk, the lion pride finally closes in on its prey and you are surrounded by the terrified lamentations of doomed zebra families. You must capture at high speed the craziness and chaos of their desperate calls and stampeding hooves: frantic animals trying to keep together as night descends.
No horror is too unspeakable, no kill, no violence too harsh, not even the very human-like cries of a captured zebra foal being eaten alive by two lionesses. Neither predators nor prey take any notice of you. Roaring lions rush around your vehicle spraying spit and blood everywhere. Quite suddenly you are in their world. When it’s finally over you slowly leave them, exhausted.
The Jouberts have spent many years following migrating herds and their determined enemies back and forth from arid desert to lush savanna mainly in the remote and wild corners of northern Botswana. Their only real home has been a beat up land cruiser supplied new every year by the National Geographic, and a three-sided tent perpetually stained with bat urine.
Waiting for lions to appear from nowhere every night, they make fires from rain-soaked wood, drink from wretched streams, survive month after month without other human contact, tolerate leeches, clouds of black mosquitoes, snakes, mud wasps, soldier ants, and endure porcupine families waddling through their ragged tent rattling their quills. Miraculously, they have lasted in a place that boasts more lions and leopards than any other location in Africa.
For months at a time, they live under the southern stars with a single folding chair and a grass mat to sleep on, neither interfering with nor judging any aspect of nature that makes them feel uncomfortable. Their initial preference would be to stop hyenas from attacking lions, to stop lions from attacking elephants, to protect baby animals of any species from being immediately savaged.
In the end, there is just too much death all around them and they usually seek refuge and comfort among the 1,000 elephants always nearby. There is a reassuring peace and tranquility around these meditative and gentle creatures, huge dark shapes towering above them, gently shuffling and bumping their vehicle on a moonlit night. Although, they have also survived several violent assaults from disgruntled bull elephants. Botswana’s elephants are the largest on the continent.
“Elephants”, Joubert writes in his diary, “have become almost as much of our lives as breathing. There is something ageless and comforting about seeing a herd of elephants gliding silently along an ancestral path toward the river. Something right in the fading light.”
The Jouberts have no explanation for their dangerous lifestyle, other than their desire to understand the essence, the true spirit of the animals inhabiting this earth. “We know stuff is going to happen to us. It is hard to avoid. All we can do is stay sharp and trust that our reactions will help us survive. Like the zebras, we have nothing else to rely on. Getting close means taking risks.”
We cannot truly comprehend the great truth about lions of course without referring to those befriended by George and Joy Adamson, also at great cost to their comfort and security. The inspired Adamsons learned that although certainly animals as dangerous as any in the world, their lions were not simply eating machines with conditioned reflexes, but individuals “capable of continuing trust, affection and friendship with other animals and humans”, if given the necessary understanding, love and respect.
Dereck and Beverly Joubert have encountered thousands of Africa’s diminishing animals, more lions than anyone else in the world. Perhaps, the one great takeaway from their life work is that the relentless evolutionary direction of planet earth has always involved a predator and its prey in all the exuberant life forms that have arisen in the last billion years or so. But it is only quite recently that our own species, the human species, has emerged as the most devastating predator on earth. With the entire planet as its prey.
Our present human culture with its emphasis on corporations and complex hierarchies has largely replaced individual choice whether to be harmful or harmless. As humans, we are each harmful even if we don’t want to be, because we are hopelessly entangled in the downside of modern society which for now depends on the fundamental reality of fossil fuels. Their seemingly inexhaustible contribution to our happiness and comfort and security for the past two centuries has encouraged us to assume that this very satisfying convenience is a necessary way of life, a necessary happiness that we deserve and must have under any circumstances.
In The Collapse of Western Civilization, Naomi Oreskes, a Professor of History of Science at Harvard University, and her colleague Erik Conway, imagine a future historian looking back on a past that is our present and probable future. They describe how children of the Enlightenment failed to act on credible information that the climate was changing and that damaging events would be the result. Simply solving the problem was too expensive and inconvenient. We all knew what was happening and why, but available technologies were not implemented in time. Too many powerful people simply had a strong interest in maintaining the use of fossil fuels and nobody wanted to live off the grid. So we all dilly-dallied and began to treat science as an enemy. Consequentially, Orestes even conceived of a time when Congress passes a Sea Rise Denial Law.
On March 3rd, 2017, Beverly Joubert and her husband were walking back to their camp to celebrate Dereck’s birthday. Beverly suddenly heard an incredible snort and saw a wildly crazed red eye in front of her. A massive buffalo impaled her under her arm and carried her off into the darkness after viciously ramming Dereck, breaking several of his ribs. Dereck chased them and frantically kicked the animal who tossed Beverly to the ground. Her injuries were horrific. While waiting eleven hours for a helicopter rescue, she bled out five pints of blood. Her face and collarbone had been shattered, her throat almost destroyed. In a moment of consciousness, she realized that Dereck’s fingers were under her nose; her one thought I’m alive, I’m alive, I’m alive.
The couple survived. Beverly was treated by seven surgeons and spent five weeks in intensive care, two and a half months in hospital. Dereck, suffering a fractured pelvis and many broken ribs, stayed at her side. The buffalo who died soon after the assault had long suffered a wound near its lung from another buffalo and was near death when he attacked. The one thought Beverly focused on in hospital was: We need to be stronger. Life is precious. Now is the time. Get me back to work.
So here we are, convinced we are something more than an animal. Clever enough to be making plans to leave our home planet. Like Botswana’s lions and leopards, still at the mercy of the murderous rages of biological evolution, struggling to tame our carnivorous hierarchical impulses. Some are striving to elevate life and all organic forms to its sacred place above our addictive joy of self-importance. But for now our meager efforts to tame our unruly brutality seem lethargic and insincere, distracted as we are by extraordinary comfort and the security of ‘cheap’ energy-dense fossil fuels with no interest to effectively replace them.
By now, the reality of a changing climate is now permanently embedded in our current assumptions and values. This reality, which exists quite independently from what anybody thinks about it, means collapse, the collapse of a way of life that has lasted for 200 years, during which the planet’s human population has risen from one billion to seven billion, and the ending of which will no doubt torment and shock humanity and provoke grief, panic and confusion.
Our government and corporate leadership, following the worst instincts of our kind, having largely given up reason, now demonstrate no mercy or compromise in saving oceans or fish or forests or rivers or national parks or the great charismatic mammals. Their death-ray directed even to butterflies and bumblebees. Instead, heedlessly doubling down on getting as much oil and gas and coal out of the ground as fast as possible, they are treating all carbon-based life as an infestation.
Perhaps there is no reason to despair. The extreme results of a changing climate (extinction, extermination, obliteration) are only the planet’s determination to defend and renew itself. When our primitive “governments” are gone, and only a few million of us are left, just a hundred years will see the resurgence of both planetary health and evolutionary intelligence. Life in many forms will continue to thrive and develop. However, the philosophy of humanism which has for too long raised our species to unassailable moral and intellectual superiority over all other life, will be forever dead.
©Linda Clarke 2018