These days it seems rare to find any self-proclaimed “explorer.” With a significant portion of the world mapped and interconnected — the exception being the deep sea — what’s left to map?
Longtime National Geographic Explorers-in-Residence Dereck and Beverly Joubert have an answer: plenty.
“The definition of exploring in our world is going to unknown places and discovering new things and then bringing them back into the fold,” Dereck Joubert said. You can explore in your own backyard, discover a new species of fish in the deep ocean, climb Mount Everest or take a trip through southwestern Africa’s Okavango River ecosystem.
“Exploring is quite a wide definition of physical, intellectual and even spiritual exploration,” he said.
This week the Jouberts will make two appearances in Jackson. One is at the 2019 Jackson Wild Summit, where the first episode of their three-part series, “Nature — Okavango: River of Dreams,” will be shown at noon Thursday at Jackson Lake Lodge. The second is at a private home in Wilson, where they’ll host a fundraiser for their nonprofit, the Great Plains Foundation.
Beverly Joubert said the couple’s idea of exploration draws them to “vulnerable areas that need protection,” including those in Botswana, where they live.
One of those spaces is the Okavango Delta, which is now recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
But it wasn’t until 2014 that the Okavango Delta became recognized in that way.
Thirty-five years earlier the Jouberts were introduced to the delta as young explorers-in-residence.
“We fell in love with it and just decided to do whatever we could to protect it,” Dereck Joubert said, “And a big part of that was looking after the animals.”
The Jouberts partnered with National Geographic in 2009 to start the Big Cats Initiative, which has started about 120 projects to protect wild felines in 28 countries, according to National Geographic’s website.
They also started Rhinos Without Borders, an initiative focused on relocating 100 rhinos from areas where they’re threatened by poaching to protected areas in Botswana.
Now the Jouberts are working on initiatives that diversify their approach to conservation, focusing on the land. They leased 300,000 acres from a community near Selinda, Botswana, placed a moratorium on hunting and began letting in small groups of ecotours to finance the lease.
“The model that we’ve used in the Okavango is to have as few people as possible paying as much money as possible to see it,” Dereck Joubert said. “The habitat is so fragile that if we put mass tourism onto it, it would have a negative impact.”
That’s a different model from conservation in the United States, where land is mostly preserved through the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and the wealthy private landowners who have been buying up large swaths of the West in recent years.
Unlike those landowners, Dereck Joubert said, he and his wife are “not wealthy people.”
“To buy the 1.5 million acres that we presently have under lease — we wouldn’t be able to afford that or be able to afford to protect it,” he said.
So when the Jouberts acquire land, as they did in Selinda as well as Kenya and Zimbabwe, it’s through a lease. That’s key to continuing to involve the community they lease the land from.
Rather than buying the land outright, leasing the land “continues the conversation,” Joubert said. And, according to the conservationist, that practice also increases the likelihood of the land continuing to be protected. Rather than putting the land under easement, which can be undone, the Jouberts seek to build long-lasting partnerships with the communities they lease land from, making conservation — and ecotourism — a profitable proposition for local people.
In addition to their work with film, the Big Cats Initiative and the Great Plains Foundation, the Jouberts also run a for-profit “conservation tourism” outfit, Great Plains Conservation. Two-thirds of the profit from that outfit flow to the foundation, which leases land and funds the Rhinos Without Borders project and others aimed at promoting conservation and uplifting local communities in Africa. (The Jouberts took a pledge never to take a dividend from the for-profit.)
Their vision is a holistic one, mobilized in the service of what Dereck Joubert called his and his wife’s lifelong mission: creating wholeness.
“We create harmony and the securing of the future of natural ecosystems,” Joubert said. “We’ve seen so much pressure on elephants, lions and rhinos and, at the same time, spiraling poverty. And so we have to do whatever we can to make this planet a better place.” ￼
Update: The Joubert's three-part series, "Nature — Okavango: River of Dreams," will air Wednesdays, Oct. 23 to Nov. 6 on PBS.