02/09/2011 03:36 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Lion Queen

2011-02-08-joubertswithcamera.jpgCalling all moms!

You think you have it rough? Try living just one day as the lioness, Ma Di Tau, raising three urchins as a single mother in the open plains of Botswana.

You're moving neighborhoods, you've got the kids in tow, and, OMG, they're all still nursing. There are vicious lions advancing on you from behind, and ahead a flowing river cuts off your path. You can swim, but when you do, hungry alligators nip at the children's little dog-paddling paws. Alligator lunch hour.

Gun-toting humans pursue you on foot and by car, and for some inexplicable reason, they want to stick your head on the wall of their family den. It's just a daily grind. A real slog. You could say it's a jungle out there, only it's not; it's the Botswana bush where 450,000 big and beautiful creatures like you once roamed and ruled the roost. Now only 20,000 remain, and you're kind of on the lam. It's sad.

2011-02-08-maditauwithtwocubs.jpgYou're a fearsome, bad mother of a butt-kicking, saber-toothed, raw-meat-gnawing lioness. But the world has conspired against you, and you're on the verge of becoming an endangered species.

All of this I learned at a screening of National Geographic Entertainment's soon to be released feature film, The Last Lions, -- very worth the viewing if only as gorgeous travelogue, with awesome nature imagery. Big-sky country. Amazing sunsets. Yet there is more -- the touching tale of survival and a mother's lot in life.

In a pre-release screening in Beverly Hills, itself an urban jungle, Dereck and Beverly Joubert, the courageous duo behind "The Last Lions," explain why they selected Ma Di Tau as their subject:

This lioness was unique. We never [before] saw lions go into the water. [When they did] we had to go into the water [too]. Our senses were heightened. We just stayed with her from the start.

The film's un-staged climax reveals a sorrowful loss for Ma Di Tau; the Jouberts' camera captures the beautiful cat's eerily anthropomorphic response.

"It's a human moment of total despair. These animals have emotions. We know that. We hold back from saying this as scientists. But we should not hold back any more," says Dereck Joubert.

2011-02-08-lionesswithbuffalo.jpgThe astonishing couple, passionate conservationists, shot 100 hours of footage that got condensed to 88 minutes of spectacular film making that defines the National Geographic standard. Remarking on the daily drill of the animal kingdom -- a relentless replay of kill or be killed -- Joubert remarks with dry wit, "The film's rough cut was nauseating. We filmed 30-40 jump-ons."

Jump-ons? That's bush-jargon for the way prowling lions leap, talons first, into the backsides of grazing bison. That's not lunch. That's a family dinner.

National Geographic is contributing $.10 to lion conservation every time The Last Lions trailer is viewed on YouTube, up to one million views. Watch the trailer here.

National Geographic Entertainment's The Last Lions | U.S. release date February 18

Debra Levine blogs about dance, film, music and urban culture on arts•meme.

photos courtesy National Geographic Entertainment