Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Opinion | To protect wildlife, Delia Owens has been willing to make enemies

Opinion | To protect wildlife, Delia Owens has been willing to make enemies

Delia Owens, author of “Where the Crawdads Sing.” (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

Delia Owens is well known for her popular first novel, “Where the Crawdads Sing.” But she is also a renowned wildlife conservationist who spent 23 years in remotest Africa among animals that had never before seen a human being.

Owens is co-author of three nonfiction bestsellers about research that she and her former husband, Mark Owens, conducted while living in Botswana and Zambia — “Cry of the Kalahari,” “The Eye of the Elephant” and “Secrets of the Savanna.” I caught up with her last weekend at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, where she was one of four authors invited to speak about the importance of water. The audience included a guest from the Zambian Embassy, Angela Chikumbi Chimpinde, tourism promotions manager.

As millions of Owens’s fans know, “Crawdads” takes place along North Carolina’s marshes, creeks and waterways. The book, which for months broke the record as No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list and stayed on the list for years, has sold more than 18 million copies and been translated into 50 languages — thus far. Between record book sales and Reese Witherspoon’s movie adaptation last year — plus dubiously sourced stories about an alleged poacher’s murder in Zambia implying the Owenses were involved — their Earth-shifting conservation work has been largely ignored.

I aim to rectify this oversight.

Delia was 24 years old when she and Mark, 29, left for Africa in 1974 with a one-way ticket, shouldering a backpack containing a single change of clothes, and just enough money to buy a third-hand vehicle and supplies for a short stay. Their mission, forged in a protozoology class at the University of Georgia, was to study wildlife in a remote region of Africa. This led them first to Botswana’s Kalahari Desert to study lions and hyenas, and later to Zambia’s Luangwa River and surrounding national park to study elephants.

In the Kalahari, a semiarid desert without a single oasis, everything depends on rain, which sometimes comes and sometimes doesn’t.

“We were the only two people in an area the size of Ireland except for a few bands of Bushmen far to the south,” Owens told her audience at the Kennedy Center. “Without rain there is simply no water at all.”

Words cannot do justice to the dangerous challenges the couple faced as they followed sketchy directions to set up their research camp. In their first book, “Cry of the Kalahari,” Mark tells of waking Delia one morning as they lay on the ground swaddled in bed rolls. “Shhhhh,” he said, shaking her gently. “The lions are here.”

“Delia’s head came up slowly and her eyes grew wide,” he wrote. “The long body of the cat, more than nine feet of her from nose to tuft, padded past our feet to a bush ten feet away.”

Then they noticed another lioness, and another.

“The entire Blue Pride, nine in all, surrounded us, nearly all of them asleep,” wrote Mark. “We were quite literally in bed with a pride of wild Kalahari lions.”

Other times they’d wake up with 3,000 antelope grazing around their tent. Lions, leopards and brown hyenas visited during the night, and would wake them by pulling on the tent’s guy ropes. Their research revealed new details about the natural history of Kalahari lions and brown hyenas, including how they survive droughts without drinking water and little to eat, how members of species cooperate to raise their young, and whether they migrate to avoid hardship. They were able to document one of the largest antelope migrations on Earth, as well as emerging fences that, in Mark’s words, “are choking the life from the Kalahari.”

“Cry of the Kalahari” exposed threats posed by mining and cattle interests. Botswana ultimately decided against the developers and opted instead to preserve the desert for tourism. Today, the Kalahari is one of the largest protectorates in the world.

Delia and Mark Owens did perhaps their most heroic work in Zambia, where they helped to stanch the horrific slaughter of elephants by poachers. During the peak of poaching in the 1980s, about 75,000 elephants were killed every year, 80 percent of them from poaching. In the Luangwa National Park, where poachers had been killing 1,000 elephants a year for $10 each, only 5,000 were left.

“Poaching and the black market for illegal animal parts, including ivory, made up the primary economy of the North Luangwa region,” Delia told me. “The professional poachers, including some corrupt officials, were making almost $140 a pound for ivory. Poachers took children as young as 10 out of school to carry poached meat. The organizers threatened to cut villagers’ feet if they refused to work as shooters or carriers.”

Delia and Mark recognized that the only way to save the elephants was to help local poachers find other ways to make a living — and to improve health care and education. So they created and funded the North Luangwa Conservation Project, a program to teach villagers skills in carpentry, textiles, midwifery, beekeeping and fish farming. They also raised money for a small-business program to extend loans to start-ups.

“We never said you have to join us, but said we’ll help you find another way to make a living,” Delia said.

Slowly, a few signed up for jobs, with the exception of fish farming. The Owenses’ translator explained that the villagers couldn’t understand how, if you buried the fish, the fish were going to grow. These tribal villagers, who lived in straw huts with grass roofs, hadn’t received much attention from anyone before the Owenses arrived. The park was mismanaged, and the Owenses were able to essentially assume command and replace an economy based on poaching with one based on small industries.

Gradually, elephant poaching began to decline. Delia cites two other key reasons for this. Game scouts firing harmless firecracker-type shells from Mark’s helicopter over poaching camps — with permission from the Zambian government — scared away many of the poachers. And in 1989, the international ivory ban was signed by most African countries, causing ivory values to plummet to about $2 a pound. Delia and Mark served as delegates on the Zambian team at the United Nations CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) meetings, where the ban finally came to pass.

Because their project successfully reduced elephant poaching, the Owenses made plenty of enemies, both in and outside government, who had been involved with the illegal killing of elephants. It goes with the territory in conservation. However, the Owenses maintained strong relationships in crucial sectors, such as the Anti-Corruption Commission and the Department of National Parks and Wildlife. Despite threats and other pressures, Delia and Mark persevered.

Regarding the reports of a poacher being shot, ample evidence shows neither Delia nor Mark was involved. They weren’t even in the area of the shooting, which was captured on camera for an ABC documentary in 1994. In a letter dated Sept. 16, 1996, from ABC senior producer Janice Tomlin to U.S. Ambassador Roland Kuchel in Zambia, Tomlin writes: “I can assure you in the strongest way possible that neither Mark nor Delia Owens nor any other North Luangwa Conservation Project staff were even in the area at the time of this shooting.”

The report that Delia was wanted in Zambia for questioning in the murder is 100 percent false. I have copies of letters from the Zambian government saying the Owenses were not — and are not — wanted for questioning. One such letter, dated July 28, 2004, comes from Zambia’s Office of the Inspector General. Regarding the Owenses, it says, “I have enquired on the matter but no one confirms the allegations of shooting and that the report is false.” The letter is signed by Zunga Siakalima, inspector general of police.

There are also two letters written last year by the inspector general and the office of the prosecutor, confirming that “there is currently no on-going or pending prosecution of the Owens.”

I have more testimonials, too many to include here, but suffice it to say that stories casting doubt on Delia’s and Mark’s dedicated work — and the credit due them — should be laid to rest forever. North Luangwa National Park, once ruled by poachers, is now open for wildlife safaris. In fact, Zambia can boast some of the most beautiful wilderness areas in Africa.

Not incidentally, Bernard Mutondo, one of Zambia’s most notorious poachers in the 1990s, agreed to stop shooting elephants and trained as a carpenter through the Owenses’ project. To this day, he works in his own shop, building desks for the local village school. After 37 years, the project to assist villages continues under the leadership of Zambians.

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