Amid Stark Beauty and Danger, Mark and Delia Owens Fight to Save Zambia's Imperiled Wildlife

UPDATED 10/10/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 10/10/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT

"Here's where civilization ends," Mark Owens shouts over the roar of his single-engine Cessna. He dips the plane's wings, and suddenly the Luangwa Valley in northern Zambia spreads out below. It's an eternity of yellow grass and green thorn bush interrupted by the snaking course of the Luangwa River. There are no roads here, no power lines, no villages—just the thousands of square miles of raw wilderness that surround the North Luangwa National Park, one of the most neglected and remote game preserves in Africa. Here Mark, 44, and his wife, Delia, 39, will spend the next five years or more.

The two American biologists are no strangers to isolation. Authors of the best-selling Cry of the Kalahari (which has been sold for a TV movie), they spent seven years in the harsh Botswana desert battling the elements while conducting studies of predatory animals. Outspoken conservation activists, they've now begun a wildlife conservation project here in the Luangwa Valley that they hope will one day become a model for saving all of Africa's endangered species.

To check the animals along the river, Mark drops the Cessna to treetop level. "I hope you don't mind this kind of flying," he says to a white-knuckled passenger as he threads the tiny plane between palm trees and skims a few feet above the sand banks. Dozens of fat, green crocodiles whip off the banks into the shallow blue water, hippos dive into the channels, and graceful puku antelope look up from their grazing as the plane whizzes by.

Mark pulls up a few hundred feet to search for signs of the poachers who remorselessly plunder the valley. Off in the distance he spots a grass fire, intentionally set to drive the park's animals into an ambush where they will be met by hunters. Mark and Delia Owens are determined to put an end to such slaughters, but they're in a desperate race against time. In the past 15 years, 95 percent of Africa's black rhinos have been wiped out by poachers; since 1979 the elephant population has plummeted from 1.3 million to 700,000, and many other species are in precipitous decline. Most conservationists have written off the 2,400-square-mile North Luangwa park as too inaccessible to defend from poachers—and so far they've been right.

The problem of poaching is particularly acute in Zambia, a mineral-rich but dirt-poor country north of Zimbabwe. In the Luangwa Valley alone, 75,000 elephants have been killed for ivory. Mark notes the location of the grass fire, worrying that it could spread to threaten his own encampment.

"Yeeee-hah!" he shouts a few minutes later as he spots home base, a little cluster of tents that will one day be the Marula Puku Research Center. He circles the camp while Delia waits on the rocky riverbed below, waving her arms in greeting. As Mark buzzes the camp, the plane's right wheel shreds a small thorn bush in the aircraft's path. Delia covers her eyes.

By anyone's standards, the Owenses lead dangerous lives. Mark and Delia live in one of the wildest terrains on earth, hours, and often days, from medical help. Water is boiled for 20 minutes over their camp-fire to avoid dysentery, but illnesses borne by air and insect are hard to avoid. The couple share their river water with wild animals, walk in the bush among lions and buffalo, and dodge puff adders, deadly black mambas and scorpions. Shopping for supplies requires a jarring seven-hour drive each way through territory inhabited by poachers with automatic weapons. None of this worries Delia as much as Mark's dauntless flying.

"God, that bush freaked me out," says Delia as she steers their pickup to the dirt airstrip just outside camp. "Sometimes I just wish I didn't love Mark so much. Then he could crash and do what he wants, and it wouldn't matter."

As Mark steps out of the Cessna, Delia runs to meet him. He scoops her up in his arms, lifting her well off the ground. At 5'4", she is 10 inches shorter than her husband.

"Mark, did you know you hit a bush?" she asks.

"Yes, love. It needed trimming anyway," he replies genially. They tie down the plane, then cover the wheels with thorns to discourage hyenas from eating the tires.

Although the Owenses are anxious to start the research phase of the project—making aerial surveys, putting radio collars on temporarily drugged animals, then tracking them as they migrate through the park—they first have to carve a home out of the uncharted bush. For the past year, on a shoestring budget of less than $60,000 provided by the Frankfurt Zoological Society, they and seven full-time laborers have cut a 20-mile track to a scouting camp and built an airstrip and a workshop and five huts in stone to ward off poachers' bullets. Despite the plane and three four-wheel-drive vehicles contributed by the Zoological Society, the labor has been incessant and backbreaking. They have persisted out of love for Africa—and each other.

Mark and Delia met in 1971, as biology students at the University of Georgia. The son of Ohio farm parents, Mark had already been married, fathered a son (now 19) and divorced. "I was an older man," he admits. "And I wore Bermuda shorts and carried a briefcase." "He was not my type at all," agrees Delia, daughter of a Georgia trucking company executive. Still, they were attracted to each other. That summer they doubled up on a motorcycle for a crosscountry trip together, and in late 1972 they were married.

The next year a lecture on disappearing wildlife prompted them to drop out of Georgia graduate school and begin plotting a trip to Africa. To finance the research they were planning, Delia took odd jobs, Mark worked in a quarry, and eventually they auctioned off their possessions: TV, stereo, kitchenware and car. When they set off in January 1974, they had some camping equipment, $6,000 and one change of clothes each.

The couple found a home in Deception Valley, a blistering locale in the middle of the Kalahari. While the couple were studying the region's brown hyenas and Kalahari lions, their savings dwindled, and at one point they had to resort to a near-starvation diet of porridge. Once they almost died of thirst when their only water container leaked into the sand. They endured storms that tore up their camp, range fires that nearly burned them alive and bouts of malaria and hepatitis. But they survived and eventually got funding from the National Geographic Society, the World Wildlife Fund and the Frankfurt Zoological Society to continue their research.

Ironically, the Owenses were able to survive disease and disaster but were eventually undone by politics. When they publicly urged the Botswana government to change its policy of fencing wildlife away from cattle territory, they were summarily thrown out of the country in 1985. "They fingerprinted us, threatened us, treated us like criminals," says Mark. "We weren't allowed to call the embassy or get a lawyer. It was the low point of our life. The Kalahari was our family, our profession, our identity, our home. We lost everything. It took a lot of healing to get over it." Still, Mark and Delia consider it a victory that Botswana, which eventually gave them permission to return, has since made moves to protect the wildlife in the Kalahari.

Their work in Zambia began in October 1987 with permission from the government to set up a research center and rehabilitate the North Luangwa park. Their job won't be easy. Zambia is one of the world's poorest countries, and their district, Mpika, is among the nation's most destitute. There is almost no employment; the tsetse fly-infested areas are unsuitable for cattle, and the soil is too poor to farm. "It's hard to appreciate the grace and beauty of an impala when you're hungry," says Delia. "The Zambians will be better conservationists when they're well fed." To this end, the Owenses plan to develop the long-neglected park for tourism, with the revenues going directly to the local villagers. "These people are living next to a gold mine in this park," says Delia, "but they haven't been able to take advantage of it."

Like many other conservationists, the Owenses have concluded that the only way to save Africa's animals is to make them valuable to the people who live around them. Subsistence poaching doesn't do much harm, but commercial ivory and meat poaching can wipe out whole populations. The best hope for the animals is to remove local support for the commercial hunters and to get the government at all levels to enforce laws against poaching.

The Owenses call their project a Park for the People. They're not at all deterred by the fact that, for now, the only people in the park seem to be poachers. One Sunday afternoon, Mark and Delia heard automatic rifle fire close to camp. "Up to that point, we were of two minds on how directly we should confront the poachers," says Mark. "Delia felt we shouldn't confront them at all, that they would burn the plane or fire on us, as they had done at another research camp farther down the valley. I felt that in order to accomplish anything here, we first had to get control of the park.

"But when we heard the rifle fire, I looked at her and she at me, and it was instant agreement: Go for them."

They sent a driver for the nearest game scouts, 2½ hours away. The scouts tracked down 10 men, and although the poachers escaped, gear they left behind led to the arrest of one hunter. Later the Owenses found the carcass of a slaughtered elephant half a mile from camp.

"We know it's a risk," says Mark. "But we've fallen in love with this place, and we're willing to take that risk. There's a purpose to it. It makes more sense than commuting to work in L.A. and getting wiped out on the highway."

Delia stands next to a pile of stones that will soon be the Owenses' living quarters. She gets a strange, moony look in her gray-green eyes. "I'm finally going to have a closet," she sighs. "Out of 15 years of marriage, I've only had a closet for four of them, and that was after the Kalahari, when we were back in the States at UC-Davis working on our Ph.D.s." Meanwhile they sleep on foam mats in a small nylon tent and keep their clothes in trunks. Their new quarters will have a sink and shower—unbelievable luxuries to Delia—although the toilet will remain a pit latrine on the edge of camp.

Not that Delia would dream of complaining about her life, past or present. "Mark and I have this special relationship," she says. "We're best friends, lovers, co-workers, partners. We work together, write together. It's just amazing." Like any couple, however, they do have their spats. "Mark is a very, very strong person," says Delia, smiling. "Very dominating. I thought I was too, but I met my match. The only thing that bothers me about our relationship, and I hate to even talk about it, but we're so close now that I can't imagine life if something happened to him. It's like I'd lose everything in one shot."

Mark admits he'd be just as lost without Delia. "Her strengths are my weaknesses," he says. "She's a great organizer, has great drive. She orders my life and gives me vision beyond what I might see on my own. Besides," he continues, "Delia's made for this life. How many women would have the grit to live in 120-degree heat, with tsetse flies nailing them every five minutes?"

The long separation from friends and family is the hardest part of the lives they've chosen to lead. Delia's father and Mark's mother died when they were in the Kalahari. His mother had been buried for two months before Mark finally got a letter with the news. "It's sad being away," says Delia. "It's very difficult when a member of the family dies or a baby is born. I missed my own twin brother's wedding. But our families understand why we're here, and they support our work."

In five or 10 years, when the Owenses feel they've finished this job or go down trying, they plan to return to America. They hope to find a piece of wilderness in the American northwest, build a log cabin and do some animal studies on their own nature reserve. "We both feel America is still our home," says Mark.

Until then, they have no doubts that their services are very much required in their adopted home. "Now is the time for biologists to become activists," says Mark. "For years, they've been coming to Africa to study animals, and the animals have been disappearing under their noses. What do they do? They shift to another area or another species. It's time for scientists to say, 'We are responsible for the animals we are studying.' It's time to say to those people who would tell us to keep our noses out of Africa's business that this is a world heritage and that it's our business too."

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