Lucky Dereck Joubert points to the place on his hand where a boomslang snake bit him four months ago.
Normally the green boomslang wins these encounters.
“It’s a very deadly snake,” notes wife Beverly, like Dereck now a citizen of Botswana.
The Jouberts are both National Geographic Explorers in Residence, a designation that recognizes their conservation efforts, especially their fight on behalf of Africa’s big cats.
They’re being murdered at a rapid rate.
We spoke in Bloomberg’s New York offices about the big cats and Beverly Joubert’s photography exhibition, “The Wild Supreme” in New York.
Tarmy: Why focus your conservation efforts on lions?
Dereck Joubert: They’re the indicator species of the whole of Africa. Without lions, everything collapses.
Beverly Joubert: You have to have the top predators of an ecosystem. Without top predators there aren’t major migrations, and if you don’t have migrations, something like buffalo would stay eating in the same area and eventually die out.
Tarmy: And tourism?
Dereck Joubert: It’s not just the ecosystems that are dependent on lions, but a major part of the economy of Africa.
There’s an $80 billion-a-year ecotourism model in Africa, and a large part of that is based on the safari business and seeing lions.
Tarmy: How many lions are left to save?
Dereck Joubert: About 50 years ago, there were 450,000 lions. Today, there are 20,000 lions.
Beverly Joubert: It’s a 95 to 97 percent decline.
Tarmy: What about the other large cats?
Dereck Joubert: Leopards are in the same position. About 50 years ago, there were 700,000 leopards. Today there are around 50,000.
Tigers have gone from 45,000 down to about 3,000. Whatever happens to tigers today will happen to lions tomorrow.
There seems to be this obsession with tiger bones, mostly for medicinal purposes, but they’re running out of stock.
They can’t get tigers anymore, so they’ve turned to lions, because lion bones and the tiger bones look exactly the same.
Tarmy: Which nationality is the worst offender in hunting?
Dereck Joubert: 600 male lions are shot every year across Africa. 556 of those trophies are coming to the United States.
So Americans are wiping out the stock of breeding males in Africa.
Beverly Joubert: You’ll hear the excuse that safari hunting is a form of conservation.
Possibly in the past, the old safari hunter once brought awareness of animals. But now that they’re in a rapid decline, killing any animal is no longer a form of conservation.
Tarmy: Tell me about your safari company, Great Plains Conservation.
Dereck Joubert: Everything we make from it goes back into land conservation. At the moment, through Great Plains we have about 1.5 million acres protected. So it’s a weird blend of an NGO and a commercial entity.
Tarmy: What would the cost of a safari be?
Dereck Joubert: We focus on two levels of ecotourism. One is high end: $1,800 a night. Then on the other end is what we call the “adventure strand,” where you go horse riding, go walking, canoeing. That costs about $600 a night.
Tarmy: Where do you live?
Dereck Joubert: In tents, going out every day, selecting a subject -- a single family of lions, or a single leopard -- and we spend as much time as we can filming until the story is done.
Tarmy: Any scary encounters beyond the boomslang?
Dereck Joubert: We’ve crashed three airplanes, been attacked by elephants four times, once by buffalo. We’ve had over 20 scorpion stings and four bouts of Malaria.
Beverly Joubert: But we feel safer in the field and with animals than we do around men.
Dereck Joubert: We were doing a film on poachers with the Botswana government and we got a message while we were in town. It said, “We know exactly where your camp is and unless you stop leading the military to us, we will kill you.”
Tarmy: So what did you do?
Dereck Joubert: We carried on filming. It wasn’t the first time. Once they sabotaged our airplane, cutting the brakes.
But again, you can’t shadow box. You’ve got to keep going with what you’re doing if you believe that it’s right.
Beverly Joubert’s exhibition is up through September at 340 Madison Avenue in New York.
Their films are available at: http://www.wildlifefilms.co.
For information on their safari programs: http://www.greatplainsconservation.com.
Information about the Big Cat Initiative: http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/big-cats.
(James Tarmy writes for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)
Muse highlights include book and movie reviews.