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June 24, 2022

Luxury Safari Magazine interview Beverly and Dereck Joubert

Dereck and Beverly Joubert, Co-Founders of Great Plains Conservation, have envisioned, conceptualised and currently run thirteen pristine safari properties in Kenya, Botswana and Zimbabwe. Along with these lodges, they have created the Great Plains Foundation, a charity that aims to preserve and protect landscapes, wildlife and the communities who rely on them in Africa, as well as the Great Plains Big Cats Initiative, Rhinos Without Borders, Conservation Roots, Project Ranger and many more. Together, they have produced more than 35 films, published 14 books and countless scientific papers.

You have been working together for many years. How did you meet?

Beverly: We met in high school but didn’t start dating immediately. We got together later on, and then went to Botswana in 1981, fell in love with it, moved there, and that’s where our filming career started.

How has your involvement with your projects influenced your relationship with one another?

Dereck: I think that living alone in the bush forces you to confront any issues, but also forces a level of tolerance. I think living together in the bush for a long time has made Beverly a much nicer person than she started out as!

Beverly: And vice versa! I think we didn’t realise it at the time, but the more we look back at our past, we recognize that we’ve used our partnership as an amazing strength. I think we’ve been more effective in conservation because it’s two people speaking out instead of one. I think we’ve been more effective in our film work as well because it’s the “yin and yang”, instead of just a masculine and feminine side. We’ve always had this wonderful blend.

Dereck: If two people living in the bush are out of sync by a slight bit, it almost has a good harmonic influence, because if the one is down and the other one is up, and vice versa, it balances the mood and the harmony, prolonging the survival. People living alone in the bush don’t live there very long, so in many ways our success has been that we can go to the bush and live there to work on a project for many years at a time without having to return to civilization.

Beverly: It’s wonderful to share those rare moments and then discuss them, talk about them and research them together. And of course, to have that second eye on it. Science is often disbelieving. We’ve actually put a third and fourth eye on it by filming and photographing, so there can’t be any disbelief at all. That has also enhanced our storytelling, but also definitely the scientific point of view.

Dereck: It’s a creative challenge as well, on the photographic side. Often Beverly will come back from a day of work and ask me to look at her photos and see which I think look good, or which ones are better. You’re working together on a project, rather than working on a project in a bubble, and then come out of it thinking you have great content, but you show it to someone, and they tell you that it’s not as great as you thought. It’s nice to have that creative challenge every day.

Beverly: And seeing that we’re talking about partnerships, especially one you can’t avoid, you need someone to watch your back. We’ve been utilising this for 40 years. If something goes wrong, at least you have the other person to assist, either medically, or something like needing to fly, Dereck would always be able to fly me out if he needed to.

What sparked that first idea of ‘Why not just see the animals, let’s save them’?

Dereck: We did a lot of filming for many years, but then we came across elephants that were being poached. It was devastating seeing this huge and magnificent creature with its face hacked off. It makes you realise that there are no bounds to the insanity and cruelty of man, and we knew we had to say something about it. By then we were already developing a voice and our photographic, filmmaking and writing skills, but they felt hollow and useless without putting them to good use. Our good use was to speak out about it, and we’ve spent our lives doing that.

Beverly: Every film we make has a very strong message that hopefully draws people in and touches their heart, starting a conversation about it. That’s how we look at our films. How can we get that conversation going and then we can take it further by having premiere screenings in the country of origin with the governments? There were often a few policy changes once the government had seen the films. And of course, taking it further to schools, teaching children around Africa. We found with the latest National Geographic Big Cat Week in the States (Big Cat Month in Africa) that it was phenomenal, because usually people want to know how we shot the films and aren’t interested in the animals. At the last one, they aired 14 of our films in Africa and South Africa and it opened up conversations that we didn’t expect, and they really went about the future of the cats and how we were going to preserve them, and how the media can help. That means that people are finally realising we could lose these animals and their pristine habitats.

Dereck: A big issue is that people get put in boxes. If you’re a journalist, people will tell you that that’s all you are, that you can’t for example become a wildlife photographer. Or if you’re not a scientist, you can’t write scientific papers. Where we got to, we were creative, we were doing films, we had published papers, but we got to a point where we decided it wasn’t enough, we had to use our voices and advocate, people told us we had to stick to filmmaking. That doesn’t sit well with us.

Beverly: In the earlier days, it was harder to speak out and say that we need money to change a situation. Now that we realise people around the world do care and want to make a change, but they don’t have the means to do so, we are opening up our initiatives and saying that they can collaborate with us, whether to follow along or donate money. It’s going to take everyone around the globe to make a difference.

Dereck: There’s a huge difference between saying something and saying nothing. If you know there’s a problem and don’t say anything about it, you’re part of the problem.

What is the biggest and/or most difficult project that you have done so far and why?

Dereck: The next one. It’s huge and it’s going to be difficult. Then again, we feel that way about every new project we take on. If new projects weren’t more scary and more difficult, we probably wouldn’t do it. There’s no point in recycling something you know you can do very easily. We’ve done a few lion films and leopard films, but each one is different and had new challenges. In the conservation arena, we’re about to take on something that not only have we never tried before, but nobody has ever tried before.

Beverly: In our career, there are stepping stones, where we are truly affected emotionally, with blood sweat and tears. One of our projects, Eternal Enemies, was undoubtedly very difficult. We had to change our circadian rhythms, so we were only working at night. The completely different energies of the lions and hyenas we were working with, the intense battles we witnessed, and the lack of sleep was all a mess. It was actually recognized when the film won awards around the world, because it was so unique, and we unveiled the darkness. Then we stepped directly into another film, Ultimate Enemies; filming in the night was extremely difficult, but it was groundbreaking and something the world had never seen before.

Dereck: After that, we went into Wildlife Warriors, where we became part of an anti-poaching unit. Each one is a challenge.

Beverly: The challenges and stepping stones are how we got to where we are. When we started the Big Cat Initiative at National Geographic about 14 years ago, it was just around the time we released Eye of the Leopard to the world and made Legedema an ambassador for leopards. That’s when we truly understood that the demise of the top predators in Africa was extreme and was happening at an alarming rate. We were losing 95% of them over a 50-year period. That’s when we moved our filmmaking to not only share the family story of what’s happening to them out there, but also to take on advocacy for them. After that, we launched the Great Plains Foundation, from which many major projects were born. One was the relocation of 87 rhinos that we did over a period of four years, but after all they are only safe until they’re not safe. We can see the success of it, but the awareness campaign was a mess, and we can only hope we managed to open up the story about rhino horn trade.

Of all your camps, which would you say is your favourite and why?

Dereck: We don’t have a favourite. It’s a revolving feast, in the sense that when we’re in a particular camp and we make adjustments; we leave and go wild. Then we think that’s our favourite, until we go to the next and then that one is our favourite. We have definitely had fun designing these camps and setting them up, but we don’t just create camps to make more beds, we build them to tell a story. Each one is different.

Beverly: What we like to bring into the story is the environment, the atmosphere and what is happening in that place. And we help to protect that area. At the moment we are protecting 1.5 million acres and that is all part of the story. It’s creating a corridor between them, linking their stories. Each environment is different and tells a different story. The camps blend into their environment and we try to make our camps exclusive and secluded, purposefully camouflaged. We love including the animals as well, because they can roam through the camps. It’s impossible to choose a favourite, but I can tell you that when we’re in them, or if a guest is in them, the journey is enhanced if you go between each camp, one would not replicate the other.

Dereck: Each one is like our home away from home, so we enjoy them as much as we’d enjoy our home.

You have many pieces of media published, ranging from films to books to scientific papers. Was it hard to get off the ground at first, or did it come naturally?

Beverly: At the start, we weren’t really focusing on it, we were driven by excitement and passion for what we were doing. We wanted to be able to unveil the things that had never been documented before. We weren’t thinking about fame or being the first. We just had this urge and needed to get it out there. And from getting it out the best way possible, everything unfolded. We found our voice; we were offered future projects with National Geographic and people paid attention. Science looked at us, 60 minutes focused on the fact that we had through film captured things that science had never discovered before.

Dereck: When it comes to writing, people always say the first words are most important, but I skip the first few words, go right to the second chapter and go back to the first later. That’s what we did in our lives. We knew that we had cameras, so should we go to school to learn how to use them, or do we dive in the deep end? We went right in and started making movies, and by the second or third we started to learn through experience, as we made more movies, we learned how to get better at it.

Beverly: We were lucky to be driven by the historical moment of there being a drastic change in channel in the Savuti area, having to capture it in that moment, because it was never going to happen again, propelling us forward in our storytelling.

Did you ever expect to become such huge names in the industry?

Dereck: I wouldn’t say we’re massive names in the industry. We’re on a journey of using whatever notoriety we have to achieve something that we hope will be great. We’re probably only halfway there, but we’ve definitely set out on that journey. We don’t do it for fame or to be big names, we do it to be a big influence. One should always do that, why set out on a journey to be no influence, and why undersell yourself? We did set out to have an impact, and once we set that journey, a lot of other things came up. Most notably, the topic of ethics. If you realise that at some point in life you’re going to stand in front of an audience of people, trying to make a difference, then you better make sure you’ve done nothing wrong along the way. You don’t want some guy in the back row remembering you for something you did and damaging your reputation. That strict code of ethics for us was etched into our lives when we were very young.

What is the biggest sacrifice you’ve had to make, and was it worth it?

Beverly: Each sacrifice we’ve made, we’ve come to terms with, but many people would probably say it’s the fact that we decided not to have a family. We sacrificed family so that the two of us could live in the bush. It was so much more romantic at the time, but as we got older, we wondered whether it was the right choice, but we’ve made peace with it. I wouldn’t even see it as a sacrifice.

Dereck: I don’t think we’ve made that many sacrifices. It’s been an ideal life and life never goes according to plan anyway. If you go into something expecting everything to go to plan and it doesn’t, then you’ve truly sacrificed.

Beverly: You could say a sacrifice is losing your life, and we’ve certainly had accidents, lost many of our ‘nine lives’ along the way. If someone thinks there is time in our field, that would be a sacrifice, because there really is no time at all.

Out of all the things you’ve done, which one would you say is your proudest achievement?

Dereck: It could be the next one. It’s a difficult question to answer, because we wouldn’t let a film go if we weren’t proud of it. We’d call National Geographic and tell them we can hand a project in, but we wouldn’t be proud of it, so we’ll see them in a year when we could be proud of it. There’s an 80-20 balance between it, that you’re 80% proud and 20% think you could do better, then it’s great. If it’s the other way around, however, you’ve got a problem. Pride itself is possibly the wrong word for us. I wouldn’t say we’re proud of the things we do, but rather satisfied. We go into each project thinking we’re going to do something extraordinary; we’re not going to settle for anything less than that.

Beverly: It should really be the most recent film we’re most proud of every time. The most recent film we did, in fact, was very different, because it was a series, and it was on the Okavango Delta. It was quite a challenge, because it was a four-part series. We had decided to look at the water and everything living in and around it, and to depict its importance and its symbiotic relationship with the animals. The series made us create an ultimate feature film that Disney has taken on, which is just called The Okavango, whereas the series was called The Okavango: River of Dreams.

Is there anything you wish you’d known before you started your incredible journey, or something you’d have wanted to tell your younger self?

Dereck: Knowing something ahead of time would ruin the journey and change the experience completely. I would probably have told my younger self that I should take a breath every now and then, not get too offended and not to take something personally. To understand that people who are jerks are always going to be jerks and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Beverly: I learned early on that I needed to trust those little instincts, and when I did trust them, we came across the most amazing situations. When I didn’t trust in them, and yet I heard them loud and clear, dangerous situations happened. I would definitely tell my younger self to listen to those intuitions, and that they would keep me safe and move me forward in life.

What’s next to come from your ‘bag of tricks’?

Dereck: We’re about to embark on a project now that will have a film component, but will primarily be a conservation effort. We’ve been contacted by a group of hunters who feel like they have too many animals in their conservancy. They appealed to us to help, and if we didn’t, they were going to kill the animal, amongst them 400 elephants. We knew we had to help. Along with the elephants, there are a lot of other animals, so in essence the entire package is 3000 animals. The move started in June 2022, where they will be relocated from the southern part of Zimbabwe to the northern part where we have a property with a camp within a UNESCO site. It’s a big piece of land, 280 000 acres, inside 1.6 million acres. It’s going to be a massive project that will consume most of our energy this year.

Beverly: We’re calling it Rewild Zambezi.

Is there anything you would like to add or want readers to know about you?

Beverly: A stop should be put to the illegal wildlife trade, or any wildlife trade for that matter, taking into consideration the overwhelming situation on the planet, with the pandemic and known and new zoonotic diseases. Through the pandemic, we discovered that the escalation of poaching in Africa was extreme, and it was mainly through snares, gin traps and other circle traps. All kinds of animals were taken out, and we’re exhausting our planet by doing so. Those animals were then traded across the world, in the bushmeat trade, and we don’t know what zoonotic diseases we’re creating by doing so. Is it fair that as we’re exhausting the wilderness areas, we’re also sterilising planet earth even from a human perspective with the new diseases we’re creating? We know that COVID-19 most likely started in the wet markets of China, and we know SARS and MRSA and many other diseases are caused by man interfering. We need to accept the fact that we are living alongside wild animals and that they are just as important as we are. They are keeping areas wild so we can have future clean water, future forests, and future oxygen that this planet needs. I think it’s time that we all become conservationists and stop abusing our planet.

Dereck: In that vein, we have a brilliant opportunity right now, coming out of the pandemic and out of global lockdowns, to restructure or rewrite our vows with nature. To have a bit of a reset. Going back to the old evils would be such a disappointment; we may as well use this crisis well and recalibrate.

Interview by Jodie Ramackers for Luxury Safari Magazine

Photography courtesy of Great Plains Conservation

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