Big Cat Week: A guide to spotting lions in the wild

NatGeo's week-long celebration of fierce predators includes Game of Lions – a film created by Emmy-award-winning director Dereck Joubert. He tells us how to get up close to these magnificent creatures in Africa


Nature film-makers Dereck Joubert and his wife, Beverly, have spent more days and hours with lions than they have at school, university or even with their parents. They know the species better than anybody.


During the duo’s adventurous 30-year quest to understand giant cats, travelling in their trusty Land Cruiser through the wilds of Botswana and around the Kenyan bush, Dereck Joubert has been bitten by poisonous snakes three times, had malaria four times and endured 20 scorpion stings.

“Also, we’ve both been snatched by elephants from vehicles four times, we’ve crashed three aeroplanes and been hit by a buffalo,” he explains. “Insurance is really difficult.”

However, their unusual profession comes with great rewards. The pair have released 22 films and 11 books – and won six Emmy awards.

The Jouberts’ Game of Lions documentary will feature in Big Cat Week, which begins on 10 February, on NatGeo Wild. It tells the story of a pride of lions, including footage of two males with some ten-day-old cubs.

“These tiny cubs were like kittens, and these almost-adult male lions were all around them. They weren’t trying to kill them; they were trying to protect them,” recalls Joubert. “One lion wanted to take possession of them and this massive fight erupted around these cubs. It was an amazing day, because we got to watch all these interactions.”

Game of Lions also follows the males as they compete to become king of the pride. To be in charge, a lion has “got to be big, he’s got to be bold, he’s got to have a mane, he’s got to be aggressive and he’s got to be the best of the best,” says Joubert.

But sadly it’s these qualities that make these lions a target for trophy hunters. “These guys evolve to develop qualities to survive,” says Joubert, “and those are the very same qualities that are used to pre-select them to be killed.”

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Sixty years ago, the lion population of the African continent was 450,000; today, just 20,000 remain. Sixty per cent of these lions live outside national parks, unprotected from hunters. If lions are wiped out, the Jouberts believe it will have a severe effect on Africa’s ecosystem.

“To understand more about these massive landscapes in Africa and the wild ecosystems, you have to look at lions – the top predator,” explains Joubert. “When the population of lions in a particular area disappears, there’s a surge of hyenas and other medium-sized predators. In turn this impacts on the medium-sized prey, which skews the population.  And the mega-prey, like buffalo and elephants, don’t migrate, because it’s the lions that keep them moving. Without lions, they stay in the same place and decimate an area, causing a knock-on effect for other species.”

As well as spreading awareness, the Jouberts’ film carries a very strong anti-hunting message. “There are two major problems when it comes to big cats: one is ignorance, the other is greed. We can fight ignorance, and that’s what Big Cat Week is all about, but greed we need a bit of help with. Once we all know what is going on, we can focus on the greedy people who are just shooting these creatures for money,” says Joubert.

There’s never been a better time to see lions in the wild, to learn about them and get involved in projects working to counter their demise. Joubert explains that if we don’t act fast, it may be too late. “Sadly, if you don’t go to see lions within the next ten to 15 years, you may never get to see them at all.”

Where to see lions:

There are hundreds of safari trips leaving from the UK each month going to various national parks across the continent, from Kruger National Park in South Africa to the Serengeti in Tanzania. Joubert offers his tips on seeing lions in the wild…

The top spots are…

The best place to go is where I shot this film — Duba, in Botswana in the Okavango. We also shot a third of it in Kenya in the Masai Mara, in a place called Mara Plains. Both places have camps and people can go and have a look. There are many places to see lions that don’t have to be a $1,000-dollar-a-night experience.

How to find lions in the bush

The first thing we do is observe the other animals to see what they’re doing. You may find a herd of wildebeest all looking in a certain direction and snorting, because they know there’s something there. Disturbances in a herd of zebras or wildebeest are key. What we do in a place like Duba is look for egrets, which come out early in the morning and head towards the buffalo. When we find the buffalo, we find the lions.


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How to know when it’s time to step back?

The first rule is: it’s always a dangerous animal. Look at the body posture — if it has its ears flat and fiery eyes, very small pupils, its tail flicking back and forth; it may show its teeth. Lions are like the concierge at a gentlemen’s club — if you’re not dressed properly, they will come up to you and say you need a tie. Lions will do the same — if you surprise a lion, it’ll tell you. If you back up, it will start relaxing.

Get involved in lion conservation

Look on National Geographic’s Cause an Uproar webpage. We formed the big cats initiative with NatGeo, which is a concerted effort to do something about the declining population of lions. We fund 48 projects in different countries aimed at saving big cats.


Game of Lions airs on Monday 10 February at 8pm on NatGeo Wild (Sky 528, Virgin 228), and is repeated throughout the channel’s Big Cat Week (10—15 February)

Go on safari in Africa with Radio Times Travel, see here for more details