Then and Now: Jouberts

National Geographic Explorers-in-Residence Dereck and Beverly Joubert have been filming and researching African wildlife since the 1980s. Recently, their research has focused on the steady decline of big cats across the globe, a trend that has been heavily affected by habitat loss and hunting. In an effort to pull the world’s wild cats from the brink of extinction, the filmmaking duo spearheaded the Big Cats Initiative. This National Geographic program is dedicated to the preservation of big cats—lions, tigers, jaguars, cheetahs, and more—through education, conservation projects, and a worldwide awareness campaign.

Moments like these were not always easy to capture, even when wildlife was relatively plenty. At the time of this 1982 expedition, the Jouberts’ Arriflex 35mm film cameras called for rationed shooting. “If I had a good day and had filmed three magazines and captured 15 minutes of action, I would have to shut down,” says Dereck Joubert of the now outdated technique. “I would open a black bag and in darkness unload each magazine, replace that exposed film with a fresh roll, remove the exposed roll, tape the ends, wrap that in a black plastic bag, and insert it into a can—all by feel in the darkness of a black bag in 100˚ heat, while the lions continued to hunt.” The process could take as long as ten minutes, and many priceless memories went un-photographed.

Photograph courtesy Wildlife Films

Beverly Joubert’s cameras could capture up to 36 images before requiring a film change. This process took as long as 60 seconds, which in the heat of action made the difference between an award-winning moment and a lost opportunity. When exposed, the Jouberts’ film rolls needed to be buried or refrigerated before they were shipped off to London for processing. Then they began a three-week wait for the results.

Modern high-definition cameras have paved the way for rapid shooting and instant review. Despite such modern conveniences, finding a power source in the middle of the wilderness can prove problematic. This, compounded with hours spent transferring footage to a stable hard drive, often counterbalances the benefits of modern cameras. “The end result is possibly marginally better today, but not 180 degrees divergent,” Dereck Joubert says.

Wildlife, however, has changed dramatically in the intervening years. While hunting has decreased as a management style and conservation efforts have blossomed, endangered animal populations continue to dwindle throughout Africa. In response to depleted wildlife, the Jouberts established the Big Cats Initiative, a program with 39 projects in 17 countries to date. This podium has come with a heavy responsibility. “We carry the burden of knowing the situation—one where we lose a rhino every nine hours, five lions a day, and five elephants an hour in Africa,” Dereck Joubert says.