Explorer, writer and award-winning filmmaker Dereck Joubert tells Phil Clisby about his life, career and conservation efforts
What was it like growing up in Africa?
There is an edge to growing up here. You get a sense that you are on the edge, very close to the heartbeat of this continent where we were all born. I was always aware of that as a kid.
What inspired you to become a filmmaker and writer?
I wanted to understand the spirit of the place of my birth, and I had watched my brother enjoy adventures and I’d read about great explorers so I wanted to understand that allure. Once I started this journey, I wanted to use my creativity to speak to other people in the world about these discoveries and, more importantly, how to protect it all.
Why did you set up Wildlife Films and become involved with Great Plains Conservation?
Wildlife Films was set up in 1983 so that we could produce and distribute documentaries to the world. We wanted to use this platform to get deals landed with National Geographic and the BBC. But filmmaking for me has always been about using storytelling not only to paint the majesty of the natural world but also to protest against its decline. Our movies are conservation documentaries, and each one has a reason to be made — some threat to be revealed and averted, a campaign.
In the same way, Great Plains was born with parallel objectives: to use something of beauty and enhanced experience to further a message and cause. Once we had distributed many films we thought about our impact and expanded into acquiring land. To protect is one thing but one needs to secure the space for these animals first. To do that we needed to make the land sustainable, and tourism is a way to do that.
What are Africa’s biggest conservation challenges?
Ignorance and greed. Ignorance we have been fighting with awareness campaigns and can solve, but greed is a harder nut to crack. If rhino horn is at US$100,000 per kg there is a massive incentive to poach and trade in it. Poverty is the poor cousin of greed and often as one goes up, so does the other, so poverty is also a huge challenge for conservation in Africa. If you are earning even the UN poverty-line wage of US$1.26 an hour, your cut of a rhino horn can amount to 10 years’ work.
How important a role does tourism play in conservation?
Ironically, I used to be sceptical about tourism and films, both industries I am now in. But they play an ever-increasing part. When we formed Great Plains it was designed to be a conservation-first company and we have maintained that. We use tourism as a way to spread information and use the revenues to fund protection of unspoilt lands. I would encourage anyone who can to travel to these wild places and vote with their tourism revenues for conservation.
What is your greatest achievement?
I think it is in playing a small part in taking the world to that tipping point where conservation is mainstream. We have been relentless about our goal of wanting the world to be kinder and more caring about the planet, about the wild landscapes and the animals in it. It is as if each day we wake up and another piece of our overall plan falls into place. This is a conservation revolution.
What has been your best experience in Africa?
Too many… Perhaps our time with a small leopard we found when she was eight days old and whom we dedicated four years to following in the wild. We fell in love and she came to trust us as if we were siblings or parents in a way. We generated three films and two books from our time with her but most of all she turned us into advocates for big cats, and on the back of that we created the Big Cats Initiative with National Geographic. As a result, we now fund about 80 projects in 27 countries.
What does being a Nat Geo Explorer-in-Residence involve?
There are 12 Explorers in Residence chosen for excelling in their field of exploratory sciences — from paleoanthropology to deep-sea research. The group includes the likes of Sylvia Earle and Bob Ballard. We meet annually and are sometimes called upon to comment on issues. These are ambassadorial roles too, where we represent Nat Geo around the world. In the Botswana context, it allows us to dream up adventures that can enhance the world’s understanding of our planet.
What’s the hardest part of the job?
The rough roads are tough. If one goes down the path of perpetual exploration (and I am talking physically and mentally), it is difficult. We produce films and then put them out there for people to judge. That is often an emotional journey. But probably what I dislike most is that while we stack up successes, we look into the eyes of these animals we care about so deeply and stare into the face of extinction and see our own failure. I dislike that.