There were 450,000 lions in Africa in 1960 when, as a young filmmaker for Cinerama, I optioned the movie rights to a novel called The Lion by famed French writer Joseph Kessel (Belle de Jour). The film was made in 1962 starring William Holden. Today, there are only 20,000 lions left in the world, as I learned last night from National Geographic filmmakers Beverly and Dereck Joubert when I saw their engrossing docudrama, The Last Lions. And there may not be any lions left in the world in 10 or 15 years unless we do everything we can to stop their senseless killing, these two remarkable people told me. Unbelievable horror, but true.
This stunning, emotionally moving wildlife adventure from these award-winning filmmakers, as narrated by Jeremy Irons, has opened in select cities nationally and is playing in Los Angeles at the Westside Landmark Theatre (starting on 2/18). It chronicles the adventures of a lioness who has been ostracized by the ruling pride when her mate is killed. Left alone with three small cubs, she is forced by fire to flee to Duba Island in the Okavango Delta of Botswana, which becomes both their refuge and danger zone. (While lions abhor water, these lions courageously swim the channel to the island.) The move tests her stamina, power and instinct as she and her cubs confront each challenge that comes their way in this new habitat. Natural enemies in the form of crocodiles, a herd of wild buffalo and a large, competitive pride of lionesses which could kill her cubs: lack of manageable prey comprises her ability to successfully hunt for and feed them with her milk.
I asked the Jouberts how they had managed to capture such a gripping wildlife story, part documentary and part real-life drama that plays like the most exciting fictional story. They told me that they lived on the Delta and had been observing the lions there when they centered on the dramatic narrative of this lioness, whom they named Ma di Tau ("Mother of Lions"). We had an interesting discussion about whether this was a film which young children should see, with its somewhat graphic depiction of life on the island, and concluded that any mature child older than eight or nine would benefit from seeing it. (Some scenes of the young cubs growing up will tear you apart.) They shot more than several hundred hours of film over the course of six years, although the 88-minute narrative seems to cover a period of about a year. Iron's richly recited narrative pulls it all together beautifully, and the musical score is haunting.
The Last Lions is the latest work from Dereck and Beverly Joubert, who were described to me by Caroline Graham as "National Geographic Explorers-in-Residence" for over four years. They told me unabashedly that their mission in life is the conservation of the large predators of Africa, and gave me a signed ("So good to stroke your stomach," referring to rubbing for luck the belly of the tiny jade buddha which I always wear around my neck) copy of a stunning book, Eye of the Leopard, which kept me up half of last night as I read about their five-year adventure photographing a young leopard named Legadema, as she grew from an eight-day-old cub into an adult cat in front of their cameras. They won their fifth Emmy award for the documentary of this story.
For 25 years they have been filming, researching, and exploring Africa, resulting in 22 films, 10 books, six scientific papers and many articles for National Geopgraphic Magazine. One of their films, Eternal Enemies, has been seen by over a billion viewers. As they told our little group, "We camp in the bush, fly from location to location, film, cart our gear from one place to the next, sleep in the back of our vehicle, walk, track, get malaria, snake bites and scorpion stings, have many laughs and much craziness. And that is our life." And I shook my head in wonder and said to myself, "It was such an honor to meet them."
The Jouberts have been instrumental in establishing the Big Cats Initiative with National Geographic, designed as an emergency action fund to drive attention to the big cats and develop real solutions to stop the decline that has seen lion numbers precipitately drop in the past 50 years.
To subscribe to Jay Weston's Restaurant Newsletter ($70 for twelve monthly issues), email him at email@example.com.