Award-winning filmmakers Dereck and Beverly Joubert, explorers-in-residence for National Geographic, have investigated the parallels between the domestic cat on your sofa and some of Africa's greatest predators.
Their new one-hour special, Soul Of The Cat is part of Nat Geo WILD's Big Cat Week (BT TV channel 318/374 HD) and is raising awareness of the Big Cat Initiative.
Their mission is the conservation and understanding of the large predators and key African wildlife species that determine the course of all conservation in Africa.
We caught up with the Joubert’s to find out why this film is so important and learn a bit more about the Big Cat Initiative.
What is the aim of Soul of the Cat?
We’re hoping that the 600 million cat owners who adore their cats will see the similarities between their pets and the animals in the wild. We also hope that viewers will realise these cats in the wild really need their help.
Do you think viewers will be shocked and surprised by the film?
It really took us by surprise. I think it’s very hard when you’re watching your cat scratching its claws on your sofa or jumping around your furniture to imagine it outside your own environment. What we’ve tried to do it to show people that their pet is sharpening their claws when they’re scratching and that almost all the behavior of your own pet cat is visible in the big cats in the wild.
Why do you think we have such a love affair with cats?
We have this incredible relationship with cats, where we can’t really tame them. You can’t fully own a cat or control it. As a result, we need these creatures to trust us if we’re going to share space with them and that dynamic is invigorating.
What is the Big Cat Initiative?
We reached the point seven years ago where we were picking up lots of awards and we looked back at the period of time we had been working with big cats and tracked the number of them in the wild. We found the curve going in a steady downward direction.
So we decided to start the Big Cat Initiative, we were approached by National Geographic, and today we have 95 projects approved in the field across 27 countries and one of the successes is that we’ve saved 2,600 lions, for example.
It’s been a galvanizing moment. Just before we started this initiative, scientists were saying that wasn’t a problem. Yet, what we had seen was that 450,000 lions had turned into only 20,000 lions. Today, thanks to the backing of National Geographic, everyone acknowledges that there is a problem.
Has the Big Cat Initiative turned things around in the last seven years?
We can’t be complacent at all. We have projects working on the ground. But we’re still focusing on very small areas and we’re still losing cats because of the actions of governments. We’re losing cats because governments are allowing hunting of cats to continue.
People are using safari hunting as ‘conservation’, but it’s not really conservation. There are roughly 3,000 male lions left in Africa, but each year, 660 are killed legally for safari hunting.
South Africa recently opened up the lion bone trade with Asia because tigers are nearly extinct and they have something called tiger bone wine. They still have that, but they’re substituting the tiger bones with lion bones. We can’t be complacent because lions will be extinct if that continues.
What advice do you have for kids who would love to get involved and have careers like your own?
The first thing is to have that passion. We have had that passion all our lives. When we get out in schools and ask kids what their passion is, often they don’t know what it is, especially at a young age. I think children need to develop a passion, nurture it and not take no for an answer.
One thing that worries me today is that we drive kids towards making money. We tell them that money equals success. I don’t think that’s entirely true. Happiness equals success. Doing something you love and getting out of the oppressive modern society expectation of you is the most important thing.
If you really have a passion for cats, watch your own pet cat. Follow it. Write down what it does, track the parallels between your own pet and big cats. Today, young people also have an enormous advantage with technology. Most people can make their own film on a phone. We had to go buy cameras and film and send it off to London to get processed. There are so many more opportunities today to really give your passion a good go. Just make sure you don’t take no for an answer.
On all your travels, what’s the greatest place you’ve ever visited?
I think that for both of us, it’s where we live. It’s Duba Plains in Bostwana. We love it there because as explorers for National Geographic we have been able to go around the world and pick our spot. This is the place where in the dark hours of the morning, we hear lion roars in the distance. We both immediately get up and go out as soon as we can. These places where lions still roar are getting rarer and rarer and out there it’s wild, there’s no people around - it’s pure wilderness.
Soul of the Cat airs on Nat Geo WILD, on Tuesday, March 7th at 8pm – BT TV channel 318/374 HD.
Nat Geo WILD’s Big Cat Week airs all week until 12th March and is also available on BT TV Catch-Up.
Did you know that Africa's lion population has declined 90% in the last 75 years?
Or that fewer than 4,000 tigers remain in the wild? More than a television event, Big Cat Week is an extension of the Big Cats Initiative, a long-term commitment by the National Geographic Society to stop poaching and save habitats.
It was founded in 2009 with Dereck and Beverly Joubert, filmmakers, conservationists and National Geographic Explorers-in-residence, in an effort to halt the decline of big cats in the wild through assessment, on-the-ground conservation, education and public awareness. The National Geographic Society’s Big Cats Initiative has supported more than 80 innovative projects to protect seven iconic big cat species in 27 countries and built 1,000 enclosures to protect livestock, big cats, and people.