Currently playing in cinemas across the United States is the latest National Geographic wildlife feature film, The Last Lions. It’s a poignant story about the struggle of a lioness and her cubs in one of the last remnants of wilderness available to Africa’s legendary big cats.
Chased from her territory by a rival pride of lions, the lioness and her offspring find refuge, of sorts, on a river island dominated by large Cape buffalo–extremely dangerous animals well capable of defending themselves against lion attacks.
The film was directed by Dereck and Beverly Joubert, veteran wildlife photographers and filmmakers whose work has been showcased in numerous National Geographic documentaries, articles, and books. The Jouberts have become advocates for Africa’s last tracts of wilderness, and especially the lions that live in them. (Read about National Geographic’s ‘>Big Cats Initiative.)
In this commentary for National Geographic News Watch, The Last Lions director, Dereck Joubert, explains why he and Beverly made the film and what they hope to achieve by showcasing the big cats to the global cinema audience. He also talks about the natural history underpinning the film and what it was like for him and Beverly to make The Last Lions. Crocodiles and violent savanna storms were only some of the hazards they had to deal with.
The Last Lions trailer.
By Dereck Joubert from Botswana
We titled our film The Last Lions, (opening across the U.S. right now) because we are deeply concerned about the last 20,000 African lions being just that, the last lions.
In our lifetimes, Beverly and I have seen a massive and disturbing decline (90 percent) in the total number of the big cats, and we anticipate even more losses before lion populations stabilize and recover.
What we were hoping for in our feature film was to be able to focus on just one of those last 20,000 stories of individual personalities in the lion world, and through that tell the story of all lions left in Africa.
But what has happened is a real uptake by audiences, resulting in the film being seen by extraordinary audience numbers in the first few weeks of its release, more than we had hoped for. I think it is popular because people see more than just a single lion story within the 90 minutes experience.
The people that talk to us about this, on Facebook and via The Last Lions website, are saying that it resonates with something in their own lives.
“At some stage the story becomes a story of character, and people have to pinch themselves to realise that it is about lions.”
Our film is about a single mom struggling to take care of her young in the face of a changing and ever more difficult world, with obstacles she could never have anticipated. At some stage the story becomes a story of character, and people have to pinch themselves to realise that it is about lions.
I appreciate that many reviewers ask about the “humanizing” of lions in this film. We’ve been as careful as we always are, through the rigorous fact-checking process at National Geographic, to avoid anthropomorphisms in the script — and yet what shines through the story, through the camera angles and close-ups, is what feels like a view into the soul of the animal.
On a big screen in a theater with 400 other people, this experience becomes a shared one, and if some people are sensing the joy, pain, revenge that they think Ma di Tau, the female character, feels, then that becomes infectious.
Its a wonderful feeling to be in the room and “feel” that shared emotion and travel that shared journey with an audience.
We wanted to create this experience because the last lions are in trouble because of us humans, and our responsibility for that is a shared one.
“We will only be able to save and restore these big cats in the wild if we act as a collective force.”
The solution to the situation we have created for the lions is also one we humans should share. We will only be able to save and restore these big cats in the wild if we act as a collective force.
Beverly and I are incredibly encouraged not just by the audience response top our film, but by the collective answer to the call to action to do something for the last lions. We need ambassadors for the big cats, an army of ambassadors, and this film seems to be unifying and gathering such a group.
We estimate that it will cost U.S.$5M a year for the next 5 years to completely secure lions and set in motion lion conservation strategies that can roll out across Africa.
We estimate that we need to double the land available to lions. We think we need to educate millions of people who live close to lions about the need and benefits of living with lions.
But none of this is overwhelming because we’ve seen that with just one film, even in its first stages of a national roll out, that people do care and respond.
Without lions we can anticipate collapsed ecosystems. We can look forward to increased poverty in communities in Africa that thrive off the $80 billion-a-year African economies generate from ecotourism. We will see the ancient connection we have to the wild places on Earth slowly fray and break as we lose touch and live ever more self-absorbed lives inside our Blackberries, in a virtual world filled with communication, yet devoid of communion with the Earth.
A few years ago, I was asked at a symposium what the future of conservation was. I answered quite firmly that there was in fact no future for conservation. With 7 billion people now on the planet and only 20,000 remaining lions, what kind of future, long term, could there ever be for conservation.
However, more recently, I’ve been seeing that it really depends on what those 7 billion people do. It depends on what the attitude and sentiment is. We can build a real army of people fighting for conservation if given the challenge. And we certainly have that challenge today, with the last lions. I’m confident that we will do the right thing.
The science behind the The Last Lions
There are many layers of research and science that go into the making of a film like The Last Lions with National Geographic, but it starts with the field observations.
One of the theories we’ve developing, and I will be writing up as a scientific paper, is about the the demographics of the buffalo the lions select as prey through the seasons of a year. We have well over 300 actual kills logged at Duba Plains in Botswana with this same pride of lions that is highlighted in the film and accompanying book.
With a fairly loose margin that I need to really understand better, it appears as though the lion pride breaks up between January and March and forms into sub-groups or pairings and, sometimes, like Ma di Tau, even operate as single lionesses.
This coincides with the calving period of the buffalo, which, as you can imagine with a herd of 1,200 buffalo, provides quite a lot of weak, young and easy-to-catch prey.
A young buffalo is still a substantial meal, but not quiet enough to be worth fighting over, as lions tend to do at a meal. When lions fight they bite and scratch one another, and those “feeding” fight injuries can be bad.
Buffalo Bull Chase — The Last Lions Deleted Scenes
If 1,200 buffalo are dropping calves at a rate of 8 percent a year, all in one short season, that puts nearly a 100 youngsters on the “market.” Single female lions work the field for stragglers. But by March, the wave of young has either been eaten or been incorporated into the herd, making it much harder to hunt, certainly much harder for a single lioness to hunt. So the pride starts grouping again, now into four or five females.
At this time the female buffalo start getting more and more vulnerable as the winter sets in and feed is less protein-rich. They lose condition, especially because new calves suckle and drain their mothers further.
Our results show a high spike in female buffalo kills from April to August. By then the lion pride is struggling to take on larger buffalo and must work together more and more.
August is when the buffalo bulls start rutting, banging heads and chasing one another around, often with blood streaming from their heads and faces, and a month or so later it takes its toll and they lose condition. Now is the time they are the target for the lions, and the risk of taking on a big bull is worth the effort. But it takes a full pride of females to achieve this.
Hunting females battle to bring these bulls down with coordinated attacks, so no matter what their internal issues may be, they hunt as a united pride.
This teamwork lasts a couple of months, but when it rains, Duba turns green and the buffalo calves start to drop and the pride breaks up and the cycle starts again.
Pride Kill — The Last Lions Deleted Scenes
The male lions at Duba play almost no role. There are few hyenas, so the defensive power of the male lions is not needed as much as it is in some other places where hyenas harrass the lionesses for kills all the time.
The male lions of Duba barely hunt (we once saw a male leap up and catch a letchwe antelope and then let it go because there were no females around to actually kill it). But they do listen to the night, and wait for marauding males to come closer.
We were in Duba about six weeks ago and saw the characters of The Last Lions, Ma di Tau, Silver Eye and the others. They have cubs now, since we finished filming, and a new male on the island. And Duba will continue to surprise and enthrall us each day and deliver new science and findings all the time.
The Filming of The Last Lions
Driving behind lions day after day may seem like a mind-numbing activity to many people who may be used to a little more interaction or action gratification.
Today TV is broken down into 12-minute segments (if you are lucky), thanks to CNN and cycles of news and ticker tape updates and pop-ups. So when we set out to do The Last Lions we knew we were going to have a complete conversation, with a few hundred people in a darkened room, an experience much closer to what it is like be be out there with us, driving alongside hunting lions or just watching them sleep.
It’s a virtual safari on a big canvas. But what you don’t get is the heat and dust and most of all…the buffalo dung being flicked up into your face as we drive along behind the herd of a few thousand.
You also don’t get the anxiety of driving into the river after lions and feeling the wheels slip, and knowing that the slightest hesitation now will end up with a day-long mess of digging and winching and collecting wood to jam in under jacked-up wheels in leech-infested waters, while crocodiles move around through murky water all around you. No, you just don’t get that while sitting, eating popcorn.
We drove into just such a river on this production with all our new gear and sank the ship, so to speak. It ruined the vehicle engine and damaged our egos.
However, the biggest challenge on this production was in styling the film so that it could feel like a big production film, so I used helicopter shots, steadicam and multiple cameras on one tripod and was always conscious of moving to a second position. Some days it got quite busy!
The most rewarding part of all this for us is when we are stretched to our limits in trying to get a scene–and then we so enjoy seeing and feeling how an audience responds to our efforts.
One shot in the film took me eight years to perfect. It’s a simple shot. Two African skimmers, those magical birds that fly at water level and skim the water with their bottom beaks. They fly very fast and sometimes duck left and right, a move that makes it very difficult, at least for me, to follow with a long lens. Well on this production I managed to get a number of shots on one afternoon that worked out perfectly, and added them to the film between two scenes to give a sense of place and the real sort of pacing that goes on in Africa.
Its not all crashing through the bush after lions on the hunt, and we wanted to show that, the down time. We also spent a lot of time looking at birds and other animals while keeping a eye on the lions, so this felt right to me. I smile in every screening as the skimmers fly past, and no doubt no one in the audience cares! I do.
There are wonderful moments on a film shoot and difficult ones.
During the making of The Last Lions, our tent would be trashed by storms. Bad weather typically sends us scurrying to the vehicle, not to escape for our own safety but to get cameras and film out of harm’s way. As a result we are always out of the tent. Then, when we return in the morning, battle-weary and ready to collapse, we’d find the tent folded in half.
It’s in those moments when its hard not to give up, put a match to it all, and fly out. But it is our home and the real secret weapon of how we film this all, is that we live there, for as much time as we can between editing and other “town” chores. Duba is our home.