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 of Ma di Tau, her cubs, the buffalo, and the rival pride 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. Dereck and Beverly Joubert 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 3 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 by texting LIONS to 50555 to do your part.
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. In the new wildlife adventure “THE LAST LIONS,” filmmakers Dereck and Beverly Joubert capture the epic journey of the lioness named Ma di Tau (“Mother of Lions”) as she battles to protect her cubs against a daunting onslaught of enemies.
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. On Duba Island, 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 Duba Island, as she brings together the rival pride in a titanic primal bid to preserve the thing that matters most: the future of her bloodline.
The gripping real-life saga of Ma di Tau, her cubs, the buffalo, and the pride unfolds inside the stark reality that lions are vanishing from the wild. In the last 50 years, lion populations have plummeted from 450,000 to as few as 20,000. Dereck and Beverly Joubert 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 wild lions?
National Geographic Entertainment presents in association with Wildlife Films “The Last Lions,” a film by Dereck and Beverly Joubert. “The Last Lions,” as told by Jeremy Irons, was directed and written by Dereck Joubert. Beverly and Dereck Joubert produced the wildlife adventure; Lisa Truitt and Chris Miller are producers for National Geographic. Dereck Joubert was director of photography. Alex Wurman composed the music, and the editor was Susan Scott. The executive producers are Tim Kelly, David Beal, Daniel Battsek, and Adam Leipzig.
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 and are 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. It is also their personal love letter to a legendary pride of lions they have come to feel part of and to know.
Their film invites moviegoers into the quest of Ma di Tau, a remarkable lioness who becomes a pioneer in creating the Tsaro pride that stakes out new territory. Once a lone mother striving to raise her cubs in the face of danger and loss, she discovers community and hard-won triumph on an island as rife with threats as it is full of opportunities. It was her story that the Jouberts felt possessed an archetypal quality; Ma di Tau is a strong mother driven to great lengths to ensure her family’s future.
“We realized, in fact, her lessons were our lessons,” writes Dereck Joubert of Ma di Tau in The Last Lions book that will accompany the film (ISBN: 978-1-4262-0779-2. Published by National Geographic and available Feb. 15, 2011, 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 her story, the Jouberts allow audiences to share the emotions they themselves experienced while observing Ma di Tau 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 true about lions. Lions generally loathe water, but these lions swim. Lions are said to hunt in the cool of the evening, but these lions 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, but these lions hunt just one species: the fierce, massive buffalo, deploying specialized techniques to outmaneuver 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 Duba Island, the Jouberts watched in amazement as Ma di Tau, and the Tsaro pride learned to thrive under unusual conditions. But they also have 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 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 to The Last Lions 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.”
For the Jouberts, that journey begins right where they wake up every morning. “For seven years, our primary home has been right where ‘The Last Lions’ was made, just across the river from Duba Island,” explains Dereck. “We live in a tent, we cook over a campfire and that allows us to be right where we need to be and ready to film the lions at any time of the day or night.”
The filmmakers’ constant, physical closeness to the Tsaro pride has allowed them to follow the lionesses into situations rarely viewed by anyone else, and to become familiar with each lioness as an individual with a distinct personality.
Dereck continues: “I know it is difficult to appreciate just how different and individual lions are, but we know every lion on Duba Island as well as we know our own family members. We can identify individual lions by sight from 100 yards away. We can spot a lion track and have a pretty good idea from the print in the sand whose it is.”
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, who gave birth to a litter of cubs in the midst of an inter-pride struggle for power. But she 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.
The Jouberts followed Ma di Tau through the most tumultuous period of a lion’s life, under heightened pressure to nurture her cubs in the face of threats from all directions – not only from lurking crocodiles, hyenas and other opportunistic animals, but cub-killers of her own kind, including the unpredictable Silver Eye, the one-eyed lioness with a long-established reputation for ferocity toward any young not her own.
“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, coordinating their efforts – splitting the herd, isolating the weak – in ways that speak to the mysteries of their communication, 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.
Ma di Tau’s cubs also became a big part of the story, even though they faced so much adversity in the course of the filming. Along the way, one cub, an irrepressible survivor, is the glimmer of hope that Ma di Tau’s line would endure into the future and became one of the central characters of the film.
“Our main cub – the little male – is one specific cub that we referred to as Junior,” says Dereck. “He has so far survived into his third year and is shown, as an insider nod to him, in the dissolve to the sub-adult at the film’s end. He recently wandered off the island. We don’t know if he has survived, but we do know that he faces increasingly tough odds.”
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, the Jouberts note that they have, in the last few years of filming at Duba, witnessed thousands of kills by lions, some that tore at their hearts when they involved buffalo they had come to know by sight. But 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.
“Understanding more about the hunt and the kill, as well as our own feelings about life and death, is what this is about,” writes Dereck of the questions and mysteries that draw adventurers, explorers, and filmmakers to the African plains. “Duba has become a special place, a spiritual place for us and for many who visit it.”
To capture the most panoramic view of Ma di Tau’s journey to Duba – in both its dispassionately realistic and more luminous, spiritual dimensions – the Jouberts followed the primal rhythms of the bush. They were usually up at 4 a.m., filming before the heat of the sun became debilitating. Days were long, full of infinite stretches of patience, only to be punctuated by sudden chaos as the lions leapt into action, forcing the Jouberts to follow.
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?”
Since the dawn of history, lions have fascinated and stirred the human imagination, starring in our myths and fairy tales. They have become symbols of humanity’s best and worst qualities, at once beauty and beast, with their majestic nobility, courage, intelligence, interplay with the land, and family loyalty on the one hand; and, on the other, their formidable power, instinctual aggression, and merciless hunting skill.
The most social of the big cats, lions may intrigue humans in part because they resemble us in several key ways. Their group size and social structures are similar to what paleo-anthropologists surmise was true of early humans living on the African savannas. The Jouberts also note that a lion’s biceps and triceps closely resemble human arms.
Iconic depictions of lions go deep into history, with Paleolithic era cave paintings from some 32,000 years ago presenting the first human images of lionesses on the hunt. Numerous cultures revered the lion: a war deity in ancient Egypt; an invincible foe in Greek mythology; the symbol of the city of Jerusalem; an incarnation of Vishnu in Hinduism; and lions are associated with kings in societies ranging from Babylon to England, such as Richard the Lionhearted, and in Botswana, where the president is referred to as Tau e Tona or “The Great Lion.”
The profound awe of lions even worked its way into language, with the verb “lionize” coming to be defined as “to treat as someone of great importance or celebrity.”
An enduring motif in art, sculpture, and architectures – with stately buildings across the world guarded by stone lions – lions have also made their way into the movies, from the roaring, thick-maned male that symbolized the MGM studio to The Cowardly Lion in “The Wizard of Oz,” Elsa, the beloved lioness star of the 1966’s classic film “Born Free,” and of course, the title character of Disney’s “The Lion King” on both screen and stage.
Ten thousand years ago lions were found throughout most of the world, but today their populations are confined to Sub-Saharan Africa and a very small contingent of Asian lions in India.
They live in groups known as prides, which typically range from 5 to 35 members, each composed of often, but not always, related lionesses, their cubs and a few adult males.
Females are the key to a pride’s survival – the maternal force that gives birth and raises the future generations, but because they also carry out as much as 90% of a pride’s hunting, while the males, who nomadically move from pride to pride, focus on protecting the pride from threats. While male cubs always leave the pride, female cubs often stay into adulthood.
Lions may be social animals, but they are also highly territorial. Competition between lions of different prides is fierce, adding to the perilous nature of their lives. Both male and female lions are known to engage in infanticide, killing the young of other lions, for reasons that are not always clear but may, in part, have to do with genetic competition (a female who loses her cubs will come into estrus).
Cubs face so many dangers, including from their own kind, that fewer than 20% survive to adulthood. In fact, the Jouberts have witnessed years in which all of the Tsaro pride’s cubs have perished. To date, they have recorded more than 100 cub deaths at Duba.
Cubs are usually born in a litter of two or three, each weighing about three pounds at birth. They nurse for six months, then take two years to mature into capable hunters that can fend for themselves, but they are not considered adult until about five or six years of age. Those cubs that make it through the dangers of infancy in the wild have an average life span of about 15 years.
Young males are driven from the pride when they mature, after which they usually form coalitions with other males and take over new prides, the better to spread their genes. But young females often stay with the pride, eventually to become mothers, starting the cycle over again.
The story of Ma di Tau hinges not only on her struggle to keep her cubs out of harm’s way, but also on her epic, military-style battles with the only significant prey on Duba Island: the African buffalo.
These enormous animals, weighing up to 1,500 pounds (compared to a female lion’s 250-300 pounds), are named as Africa’s most dangerous species, on average killing more human beings each year than lions do. Their greatest weapons are their thick, muscular bodies and the low, curved horns that span their entire foreheads, serving both as a shield and as a battering ram capable of grievously injuring another buffalo or large predator. What they may lack in speed, they make up for in endurance, often capable of exhausting a swiftly chasing lion.
Buffalo live in large herds that can range from a few hundred to several thousand, which affords them greater protection, making it harder for lions to target a single individual.
Yet, once the lions are able to separate a buffalo from the herd, anything can happen. Dereck Joubert writes, “It is never certain who will be worn out first by the process… it is why we call their relationship one of relentless enemies.”
On average, the Jouberts have witnessed roughly 15 buffalo kills per month at Duba Island, but each kill is preceded by numerous attacks and long, eventful chases intense enough to boggle the mind of an action movie director.
The lions have developed their own unique tactics for success – including attacking from the side, splitting off the herd and creating stragglers. Likewise, the buffalo have developed their own strategies for defense – including falling asleep. In the middle of an epic chase, a buffalo herd may huddle together and begin snoozing. With the herd circling their young, horns pointed out into air, the lions know better than to attack. So they go to sleep, too, often too woozy in the hot sun to continue the hunt.
The whole process of hunting unfolds each day in different ways, leading the Jouberts to call it an infinite tango of alternating heat and grace. Writes Dereck: “Their dance is eternal, the lion’s and the buffalo’s destinies intertwined like one beast, a double-headed shape of amber and black, working together like muscles in the same body.”
About Duba Plains
“The Last Lions” is a visceral journey into part of Africa few people will ever see, and even those visitors will view it only on a brief safari. To Beverly and Dereck Joubert, however, Duba Plains is home.
The island lies in the northwest of Botswana’s Okavango Delta, the world’s largest inland delta, comprised of an intricate web of lagoons, lakes, and hidden channels that sustains one of the most fantastically diverse environments on earth. Amid a mosaic of habitats, including savanna, swamp, and woodlands, lives a vast array of mammals, birds, and reptiles.
Duba Island, however, is cut off from this teeming wilderness and has become a realm unto itself. It may not seem much on a map – a sandy, tree-lined piece of land about 200 square kilometers long, but that belies the grand battles and dramas that unfold each day among the lions and buffalo.
The island is unusual in part because it is new – formed less than two decades ago by shifting rivers and the vast architecture of termites, which suddenly separated this chunk of rolling plains from the mainland. Unlike the surrounding Okavango, Duba hosts a limited array of animal life: a few dozen warthogs, 2,000 lechwe antelope, 14 tsessebe antelope, an assortment of wildebeest, kudu, baboons, aardwolves, hyenas, leopards, and elephants, and of course, the buffalo and the lions that crossed the delta to hunt this prey.
Dereck writes in his filmmaking diary: “Duba is a wonderland like no other. It has rolling plains like the Masai Mara, yet it is quiet, uncluttered by humans. It is a swamp of crystal clear water, dotted with forest and palms. Mosquitoes get bad at times, vehicles get bogged down, lions won’t hesitate to take whatever looks inviting, so for humans it may not be perfect, but that is what makes it perfect for us! We drove out today to film and got so badly stuck it took until midnight to get out. Leeches must have sucked a pint of blood from me by the looks of it, and the July winter water was freezing. The first lesson to be learned is that we all make our own paradises.”
About the Filmmakers
Award-winning filmmakers Dereck and Beverly Joubert have been filming, researching, and exploring in Africa for over 28 years. Their coverage of unique predator behavior has resulted in 22 films, 10 books, six scientific papers, and many articles for National Geographic magazine. This body of work has resulted in five Emmys, a Peabody, the World Ecology Award, and recent induction into the American Academy of Achievement. They have been awarded the Presidential Order of Merit by the government of Botswana.
Filmmaking for them has always been a way to bring the message of conservation to the world, and it is estimated that over a billion viewers have seen their film “Eternal Enemies.”
Their recent expansion into conservation tourism via their new company, Great Plains, is a venture into community/conservation partnerships in Africa, and Great Plains has received international awards for responsible tourism.
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. The total amount of impacted conservation land under Great Plains influence is about 1.5 million acres. These projects all aim to rehabilitate the environment and return these vast tracts of land to nature.
But it is big cats that attract their major effort today. Dereck and Beverly Joubert have been instrumental in establishing the Big Cats Initiative, a program with National Geographic designed as an emergency action fund to drive attention to big cats and to develop real solutions to stop the decline that has seen lion numbers precipitately drop in 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.”
The Jouberts have been National Geographic Explorers-in-Residence for over four years. Their mission is to capture gripping tales and to promote the understanding of the large predators and key African wildlife species that determine the course of all conservation in Africa.
Among the films Dereck and Beverly Joubert have been involved with as director, cinematographer, writer or producer are “Big Cat Odyssey” (2010), “Great Migrations: Race to Survive” (2010), “Rhino Rescue” (2009), “Living With Big Cats” (2006), “Eye of the Leopard” (2006), “Relentless Enemies” (2006), “Hunting Hounds of Arabia” (2003), “Ultimate Enemies” (2003), “Whispers: An Elephant’s Tale” (2000), “Wildlife Warriors” (1996), “Reflections on Elephants” (1994), “Lions of Darkness” (1994), “Eternal Enemies: Lions and Hyenas” (1992), “Zebras: Patterns in the Grass” (1991), “Trial of the Elephants,” (1990), “Journey to the Forgotten River” (1990), and “Stolen River” (1988).
Dereck Joubert also wrote the books “Face to Face with Lions,” “Face to Face with Leopards, “Face to Face with Elephants,” “Everything Big Cats,” “Relentless Enemies,” “Eye of the Leopard,” “The African Diaries: An Illustrated Memoir of Life in the Bush,” “Hunting with the Moon: The Lions of Savuti,” “Whispers: An Elephant’s Tale,” and “African Animal Alphabet,” to be published in 2011.
Beverly Joubert’s photographs also appear in the books “Eye of the Leopard,” “The African Diaries: An Illustrated Memoir of Life in the Bush,” “Hunting with the Moon: The Lions of Savuti,” “Whispers: An Elephant’s Tale,” and “African Animal Alphabet,” to be published in 2011. She has contributed many photographs to National Geographic magazine.
“The Last Lions,” published by National Geographic Books, was written by Dereck Joubert with photographs by Beverly Joubert.