The wildlife filmmakers and conservationists Beverly and Dereck Joubert at their event at ABC Carpet Home in Manhattan. Natalie Keyssar for The Wall Street Journal

Beverly and Dereck Joubert Are Out for Africa

Article courtesy of the Wall Street Journal - March 31, 2014

Ralph Gardner Jr. Chats With the Emmy Award-Winning Wildlife Filmmakers and Conservationists

Comparing lions to elephants is like comparing apples to oranges. At least, that's the impression I got from Emmy Award-winning wildlife filmmakers and conservationists Beverly and Dereck Joubert. I cornered them just before they gave a talk last week at ABC Carpet & Home on Broadway about elephant poaching in Africa and what can be done to stop it.

"I'm a lion person," Mr. Joubert admitted. "But I have to say I've spent 30 years around elephants."

"Lions are fantastic to be with," he went on. "You're watching a killing machine."

Hanging out with elephants, on the other hand, sounds more like a family gathering at Thanksgiving or Passover—if everybody knew how to get along. "The time we spend around elephants is almost like a meditation," Mr. Joubert said. "They embody all the things we find noble about ourselves and none of the things we hate about our species.

For example, they have language, compassion, altruism. They're able to solve problems, to think in past, present and future—all these things we once thought were uniquely human traits. The one thing elephants don't have that we have is the enjoyment of killing for pleasure."

"It's so profound to be in direct connection with an elephant," Ms. Joubert added. "You want to assist them and be their voice. We've had elephants in front of us and they could squash us like a bug. They were calm and respectful because we were calm and respectful back to them."

Unfortunately, sociable elephants are becoming the exception to the rule. The average African elephant is skittish, if not downright hostile, around humans because of poaching, habitat destruction and big-game hunting. That's another symptom of their intelligence. In 1970, there were 1.3 million elephants in Africa. That number has dwindled to 350,000.

"We've lost 95% of the elephant population in our lifetimes," Mr. Joubert said. "It's wholesale slaughter."

Six years ago, the Jouberts decided to try to do something about it by taking over the 320,000-acre Selinda Reserve in northern Botswana and turning it into a tented safari camp where elephants have nothing to fear. (Another reason for Botswana's success in maintaining its herds while they're being decimated across much of the rest of Africa, according to Mr. Joubert, is that since the '90s the Botswanan military has had a rather unequivocal shoot-to-kill policy regarding poachers.)

"Six years later, we have some of the most relaxed elephants in Africa," Mr. Joubert boasted.

These days, the filmmakers can drive a jeep between a mother and her calf without negative repercussions. Usually. They can count on the fingers of one hand the number of bad experiences they've had with elephants—some of which they detailed to the capacity crowd that came to hear their elephant stories and watch intimate footage of the species as the animals went about doing things such as saving a calf from drowning in mud and mourning their dead.

"It's usually our fault being in the wrong place at the wrong time—coming across elephants after poachers have been there," Mr. Joubert said.

For example, there was the time they were charged by an elephant who had been wounded by poachers and associated the sound of their jeep with danger. Another time, they unknowingly camped for the night where an elephant had just given birth. "This baby elephant got up and imprinted on us," Mr. Joubert remembered.

Its mother wasn't pleased. "She smashed the hell out of us. She hit us three times on the front, smashed the windshield, bent the chassis. We were still in our sleeping bags."

They survived by flashing a spotlight in her eyes—elephants apparently don't like bright lights—and after she moved away, leading her calf back to her.

As riveting as their stories (the Jouberts also showed gruesome footage of a pride of lions attacking a lone elephant; the elephant survived), the animals serve a larger purpose: lions, elephants and rhinos are majestic creatures that capture the imagination and make the case for the Jouberts' mission: to preserve Africa's wilderness, or what's left of it.

"There are certain species that are iconic and people will pay attention to," Ms. Joubert explained. "If we can't protect them, we're going to lose vast tracts of wilderness."

Some species are already at a tipping point. "Rhinos in particular," Mr. Joubert reported. "One is being shot at a rate of once every eight hours. They've just reached the point now that we're losing more rhinos than are breeding. We're in deficit this year."

"Next year, we're going to be moving 100 rhinos from South Africa to Botswana," Ms. Joubert added. "We have to raise a lot of funds to make this happen."

She said they're all privately owned rhinos. "People have gotten to the point they're fearful for their own lives and the rhinos' lives," she said.

That's because of poachers, of course. And the reason poachers are so busy is because there's a vast market for ivory, especially in China. Regarding the Chinese, the Jouberts struck a surprisingly optimistic note. They said that most Chinese are misinformed about the origins of the ivory they covet for everything from status symbol to aphrodisiac.

Most Chinese don't know ivory comes from dead elephants, they said. "Seventy percent of people in China believe tusks fall out and grow back," Ms. Joubert told the crowd.

"We're talking about setting up a Chinese-language film company," Mr. Joubert added. "So we can talk directly to that market that does the most damage."

There may be something to be said for one-party rule. "In a country like the U.S., it's hard to get anything done," Mr. Joubert said. In China, "If we can get to the leadership and convince them, they can outlaw ivory in 24 hours.

"We're not going to do it by demonizing the Chinese. They need to be our partners."