Animal Passions

updated 08/15/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/15/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

IN THE WARM SEPIA LIGHT OF LATE AFTERNOON ON THE savannah near their remote camp at Zibadianja, northern Botswana, Dereck and Beverly Joubert spot what appears to be a gray boulder some thousand yards away. "Bull elephant," says Dereck. "About 40 years old. In his prime." As the couple approach on foot, Dereck picks up his Arriflex movie camera while Beverly swoops up her Nikon. They barely begin to shoot when the five-ton bull becomes enraged, trumpets, spreads his ears and charges full-speed. The Jouberts continue filming—even as the elephant suddenly digs both front legs into the ground, skids forward in a cloud of dust and mud and comes to a halt within yards of the couple.

A short time later, regrouping in their Toyota Land Cruiser, Beverly allows that the incident "got the adrenaline pumping." Yes, concedes her husband, "but I wish I'd shot it in slow motion."

For the Jouberts, husband-and-wife award-winning documentary-makers and veterans of 16 years in the African bush and eight wildlife films since 1982, such occurrences are all in a day's—and a lifetime's—work. The South African-born filmmakers, whose Lions of Darkness airs in two parts on Aug. 21 and 28 as the season opener of National Geographic Explorer on cable's TBS (their Emmy-winning Eternal Enemies: Lions and Hyenas was PBS's highest-rated program in 1992), are chroniclers of a world most people have never seen. Yet even with some 1 million feet of film shot to date, "the bush is constantly surprising," says Beverly. "Just when you think you know everything, you learn something new."

That, it seems, is the kind of life that the two longed for ever since their middle-class childhoods in Johannesburg. Both had spent time in the bush on family vacations, and by the time they met at Johannesburg's Florida Park high school, "I'd already told my parents that I'd probably live with somebody before marriage," recalls Beverly, 37, "and that we'd roam around for a while." Dereck, 38, was an ideal match. "I never wanted the kind of life where I went to the office from 9 to 5 and had a few miserable, tired hours with my wife before we went to bed and started again the next morning," he says. "That's not the way to live."

So they didn't. Shortly after Beverly's 21st birthday, the two—by then they were living together, she had graduated from a business school and he had a geology degree from the University of Witwatersrand—jumped at the chance to co-manage a game reserve in South Africa. After honing their skills as naturalists, the pair shifted in 1981 to study lion behavior in the 10,000-square-mile Chobe Lion Research Camp in northern Botswana—"a true wilderness," says Dereck, "one of the few places in the world where nobody would look for you if you went missing." It was there that they were handed a movie camera by a visiting film crew and suddenly became a couple with a mission. "Taking groups of six or seven people on bush walks is one way to communicate about animals," says Dereck. "But the number of people you can reach with documentary film is amazing."

In Europe the couple, who married in 1983, apprenticed to learn the fine points of the craft, Dereck as a cameraman and Beverly as sound recordist. By 1988 their proficiency and reputation had grown to the point that their second film, Stolen River, about the drying-up of a crucial river within Chobe, was bought sight unseen by the TV division of National Geographic.

Now the Jouberts write, produce, edit, shoot and help score their films from home: three 16-foot by 12-foot tents amid a thicket of trees on an island in the Chobe River in remote northern Botswana, seven hours by Land Cruiser from the nearest town, Kasane. Their only contact with the world is via shortwave radio; major news events, says Dereck, "aren't that important in our lives anyway." Their spartan lifestyle—a simple, largely vegetarian diet cooked over a log fire and homeopathic preventive medicine—suits them. But it leaves little room for family. "I think children would alter the balance of our life," says Beverly wistfully, "the balance of our relationship."

Though they employ two local tribesmen, receive occasional visitors and travel to major cities for about two months every two years, their isolation can cause stress. Yet, says Beverly, "we don't have arguments. Maybe it's got something to do with sheer survival. You can't go stomping off into the bush because you wouldn't last very long."

During their filming forays, they often spend as many as 10 days living out of their vehicle, integrating themselves into prides of lions. "Gradually," says Dereck, "you can feel their resistance breaking down until the time comes when some of the lions will sleep with their heads leaning against the tires of our Land Cruiser."

While profoundly satisfying, their work can also be heartbreaking. "One of the saddest moments we ever witnessed was when we watched lions bring down a baby elephant," Dereck recalls. "This particular calf had been down for about 15 minutes. As we pulled alongside, she opened her eyes and reached out her trunk to me. The hardest man in the world would have been moved at that moment. It really was tough to watch, but I backed away, apologizing to everything around me for intruding."

In the wild, Dereck elaborates, "there's a domino effect that you never see. There might be some lion cubs that are desperate for milk, and if their mother does not make the kill, they are going to die. We cannot make random decisions to step in here and step back there."

But the greatest threat to the creatures in their world, both Jouberts agree, comes from human beings. Thus, their main concentration now is on conservation; they are making an antipoaching film and are lobbying the Botswana government to curtail hunting licenses. It is for these efforts that in the Botswanans' Setswana language, the two are now known as Radetau and Madetau—literally, Father and Mother of the Lions.

The Jouberts acknowledge the honor, but the privilege, they insist, is all theirs, especially on those evenings when they drive out into the bush at sunset to watch herds of elephants and listen to their CD players. "We'll put on music that is totally at odds with the scene, especially the blues," says Beverly. "We love B.B. King, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters. The juxtaposition is strange and gives you an incredible high."

"It's nice to know the world still has uncharted territories," says Dereck. "Once everything becomes tame and calculated, controlled—I wouldn't want to live in that world."

SUSAN SCHINDEHETTE
TERRY SMITH in Zibadianja

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