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Wildlife filmmakers focusing on endangered cats

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South African wildlife photographers and authors Dereck and Beverly Joubert have worked in some of Africa's most remote areas for more than 25 years, recording the life cycles and decline of some of the continent's most iconic animals, in the process winning five Emmys, a Peabody and a Wildscreen Panda Award.

Their most recent film and book, both titled "Eye of the Leopard," record their four years living close to a wild mother leopard and her cub on a small island in Botswana's Okavango Delta.

Now they are working with the National Geographic Society and other international groups on the Big Cats Initiative, an effort to halt the extinction of these remarkable animals. The husband and wife visited Los Angeles recently and sat down for a talk.

Why big cats?

Dereck Joubert: Big cats are disappearing at a tremendous rate. We've seen these numbers just tumble, from 450,000 lions 50 years ago to 20,000 today. Leopards, 700,000 to 50,000. Tigers, there are fewer than 1,000 left in India.

We should all care about big cats because, as we are now finding out, whole ecosystems disappear when we lose them. Whether it's wolves in North America, sharks in the sea, tigers in India and Asia, or lions in Africa, these ecosystems rely on these big cats and big predators to keep them around. As the predators at the top disappear, the large prey grow in number. They start forcing out the smaller prey, smaller predators start feeding on still smaller prey, and it becomes a monoculture [with only one species], and that monoculture collapses and you end up with no ecosystem.

Everything is linked to everything else. It's ironic, but you take out the lions that are often in conflict with the communities, and suddenly the communities have a worse life.

What's causing the loss of the cats?

Beverly Joubert: There are many reasons, but it's mainly the conflict with man. As we have man getting closer to the wilderness areas, obviously there is going to be conflict. A lot of Africans are cattle herders, and lions find the cattle an easy prey. They will take a cow . . . and then the communities will retaliate. The Masai retaliate by spearing them. In some areas, they retaliate by poisoning the carcass. And then of course it doesn't kill only the one lion that has killed their cow, but a variety of other species as well, like jackals and hyenas and vultures, and of course the whole lion tribe.

And then of course we do have the Western culture of trophy hunting. When animals are on the decline, hunting, especially trophy hunting, is not a true conservation mechanism. We have to stop all killing.

Another component is the Asian trade in lion bones [for medicinal purposes]. They would like to use tiger bones, but now in India there are less than 1,000 tigers, so it's just not that easy for them to get tiger bones. And lion bones look very similar. . . .

What are you doing?

BJ: The main thing is . . . that, by 2015, we should stop the decline, and then by 2020 we should increase the population in areas where they have gone extinct.

DJ: We predict an extinction of lions by 2020 if nothing is done, and that would be completely demoralizing and hopeless if it happened. There is a window of opportunity for us to get in and fix this now, and there are ways to fix it.

For example, we are supporting predator compensation, so when cattle are killed [the herders are paid]. The idea is to make sure they are not in deficit, so that when they come to the table and we start a dialogue about the real importance of lions to ecosystems, they don't have the crutch of saying, "Yeah, that's easy for you to say, but we lost a cow last night."

BJ: It's a way of drawing the local communities into protecting the areas and making them realize that [the lion] is something precious, a huge predator that brings in revenue from tourists that benefits everyone.

What else?

DJ: The big issue here is that about 80% of the range of the lions has been lost, so while our first strategy is to stop the brutal killing, the next phase is to reverse that and push back. We are working with a number of organizations to buy back these corridors [between islands of lion populations] and create links.

The big problem with lions now is that they have been ring-fenced and isolated into these small islands, sometimes as small as one lioness. . . . We know from island biogeography that the smaller the island, the greater the chance of extinction. That's why the 2020 extinction figure is almost our best-case scenario unless we do something. If there are two populations that are dwindling, we want to buy that land in the middle and create a link.

And then our last strategy, which we have started already, is to start collecting DNA samples from the broadest range of lion populations we have today. We have to assume there are more lions today than there will be in five years, so we better get out there right now and start collecting these DNA samples.

If we have DNA and sperm samples, we can help captive breeding and not be dipping into the wild animals. If the numbers in the game reserves on these islands start dwindling, we can dip into the gene bank to supplement it.

Our focus is lions and the other big cats, but by rehabilitating their home range, we can create economic benefits as well for communities.

Presently, there is a flow of communities out of the core of Africa and into the towns because there is no money out in the wild, there is no food, there is no economic benefit at all. If we can reverse that flow, we can create a better lifestyle for everybody. So this is not just a lion or big cat solution, it is a people solution.

How can people help?

BJ: Visit the National Geographic website at www.nationalgeographic.com/bigcats to sign up.

thomas.maugh@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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