SCIENCE

Should All Poachers Be Shot? Famed Explorers Talk Elephant Conservation

"Shooting an elephant is not a challenge at all."
Silhouette of an elephant bull (Loxondonta Africana) at sunset with a stormy cloud in the background in the Okavango Delta in
Silhouette of an elephant bull (Loxondonta Africana) at sunset with a stormy cloud in the background in the Okavango Delta in Botswana.

By now, you've probably heard the troubling statistics. Some 35,000 African elephants are killed every year for their ivory. Tanzania has lost nearly 60 percent of its elephant population in just five years as the sky-high price of ivory drives poachers to risk their lives for a quick payday.

But for famed National Geographic explorers Dereck and Beverly Joubert, the fight for these creatures is far from over. The filmmakers have spent their lives documenting the beauty of imperiled animals from lions to rhinos. Now, they're turning to elephants.

The Huffington Post sat down with the Jouberts ahead of the premiere of their new documentary, Soul of the Elephant, for the PBS program "Nature." They spoke about the peaceful nature of the pachyderms, the lengths matriarchs will go to to save their families and why it's absurd to think of these great creatures as solely animals removed from humanity. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

We think of elephants as massive creatures that rule the savannah. But is it actually hard to kill an elephant when you pair it against a human with an assault rifle?

Dereck Joubert: It's as hard to kill an elephant as it is to kill a [door]. These things are huge animals, you can hardly miss them. Shooting an elephant is not a challenge at all, and you can virtually walk right up to them and shoot them.

Why there's such hype around killing the Big Five [the African lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, African leopard and rhinoceros] is a mystery. The Big Five hunting philosophy is the five most dangerous animals on the planet, certainly in Africa. But almost all of them are really easy to kill.

They just look good on the wall because they're big.

Wildlife filmmakers Dereck and Beverly Joubert investigate a submerged elephant skull in Botswana.
Wildlife filmmakers Dereck and Beverly Joubert investigate a submerged elephant skull in Botswana.

In terms of numbers, how do you even conceptualize the notion that tens of thousands are killed every year? How can we comprehend that each death represents an individual animal?

Dereck: It's just impossible to imagine that it's only our species that could be individuals and the rest of all these animals are just a bunch of animals.

You can see it in the footage. You can see two little babies born at the same time that act completely different -- you get these wonderful big matriarchs that will put themselves out in front of the herd whenever there's trouble and forfeit their lives for their families.

You've spent the entirety of your career living amongst these animals. After years of troubling statistics, do you still get angry?

Beverly Joubert: What really pushes us forward is the destruction to these animals. We get incredibly angry, and I think that's why we live our lives to a point that we don't have a break. We're looking at one species after another because we know that we could be losing the battle if we don't keep going on.

Man is ignorance. We feel that we've got to create a better awareness, and if we don't, we're going to have a lot of species going extinct, and elephants are on that path.

Dereck: [Last week], 14 elephants were killed with cyanide poisoning in Zimbabwe, and I don't know if that makes me angry or just disappoints me in humanity. You go, "Surely, surely by know everybody understands that elephants are these beautiful creatures that you need to protect." And yet some assholes out there lay cyanide poison to kill baby elephants.

Filmmaker Dereck Joubert (left foreground) films a herd of elephants from the water in Botswana.
Filmmaker Dereck Joubert (left foreground) films a herd of elephants from the water in Botswana.

We often see comments on stories we publish where readers call on governments to just kill these poachers, shoot them on sight. What's your perspective on that? 

Dereck: Look, there's three pillars to this trade, there are the poachers -- the people acquiring the ivory -- there are the traders and there's the demand side out there.

There's two kind of poachers, you'll get the guy that's really poor that goes out and shoots a springbok or an impala and shoots one to get the meat. It's illegal; he should go to jail. The second kind, he's the guy that sees the commercial value in this, and risks a lot more. He knows that he's doing it illegally; he's not doing it as a subsistence poacher. What we have to do is isolate each.

In Botswana, if antipoaching forces come across somebody out there, what they do is say 'You're surrounded, put down your guns.' But if there's any movement to pick up a gun the rangers will shoot to kill. You have to be harsh about it; this is all a game of risk and reward. What our message here in Botswana is, if you come in here and you poach on our land, the risk is very, very high. There's a fair chance you're going to get shot.

Beverly: So stay away. 

Does it work?

Beverly: You know, we work with the village kids and we're working with women in the villages to try and give them better health, better community, respect and a craft. With both the kids and the women, we're trying to assist them in not having anybody go that way [into poaching] and helping them have a profession so they don't. 

If we get them a profession and a job, at the end of the day they won't go and poach. And in fact, most of the guys that we've taught from the bottom up are probably going to be the best conservationists the country will ever have. Let's turn it so you don't have a war in Botswana against poaching.

What's changed over the past 30 years? Are you encouraged when you see people get up in arms over the killing of an animal like Cecil or Satao?

Beverly: Surely, we're seeing a rise in consciousness. To see people shout out about Cecil is very encouraging. When I think of the early '80s, we made a film about these three male lions and each of them ended up on the wall somewhere, in Texas, in Spain and in New York, and the more we shouted out about it nobody did anything.

We can't stop. As soon as we think we've won the battle, someone will sneak in to restart it.

You don't really get to take a vacation, do you?

Dereck: No, we don't, because we've got work to do.

If I was writing a fantasy script 10 years ago, it would've ended with the president of America and the president of China shaking hands on an ivory ban.

[That's happened, but] we can't stop. We don't take vacations, we wake up every morning trying to devise new ways to get this message out. Because it can slip -- we've got momentum behind us, but everyone in the world needs to become a conservationist, otherwise we'll kill ourselves.

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