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Where the wild things are

A passion for conservation takes Mark (MEd '72) and Delia Owens (BS '71) deep into the wilds of Africa

by Kate Campbell


Settling in for the night in the heart of Botswana’s Central Kalahari Desert, Mark and Delia Owens heard the unmistakable roar of lions.

The sound came from somewhere in the endless darkness, south of their camp. Instead of staying put Mark and Delia set out into the inky night to track them down. After wandering for hours, they faced facts: They were hopelessly lost.

“We decided to sleep on the ground and wait for daylight,” says Mark (MEd ’72). “I woke up because I heard this low noise, like a coo. I looked down over my feet and this lioness was standing over us.”

Surrounded by nine mostly slumbering lions, Mark and Delia froze. After a while the lions rose and slunk away. It was a humbling moment for the Owenses, both wildlife biologists. “They had accepted us as part of the landscape,” says Delia Dykes Owens (BS ’71). “It was the most special moment of our lives.”

“You can’t help but be thrilled,” Mark says. “The passion is what drives you—as well as scientific curiosity.”

It was that passion for the planet’s last wild places that inspired the young students to scrimp, save and sell what little they owned in the early 1970’s, soon after graduating from UGA where they met. With just $6,000, they left all they knew behind, slipped into southern Africa’s deepest wilderness and devoted themselves to the recovery of the natural world.

“Dr. Paulin’s protozoology class, Dr. Provost’s wildlife biology classes, and Dr. Murray Blum’s entomology lab taught us to look beyond our microscopes and classrooms to the larger world beyond,” Delia says. Studying earth’s most vulnerable creatures became more than a scientific career. It became an all-consuming quest as they worked to preserve wildlife by teaching local residents how to build sustainable economies without exhausting natural resources. Now in Idaho, they are working to preserve grizzly bears and helping to maintain The Owens Foundation for Wildlife Conservation which has been a model for conservation efforts worldwide.

Mark and Delia began their African journey by tracking lions in Botswana’s scorched and ancient dry riverbeds and ended it saving elephants in the rugged woodlands and savannas of northern Zambia. They documented their experiences in a series of books that detail the intricate social systems and survival skills of Africa’s wildlife as well as the harshness and unmatched beauty of life in the African bush.

Early years in the desert

The logistics, Mark says of life in the Kalahari, seemed insurmountable. “There was never enough water, we had to haul in drums from a river a two-day drive away,” Mark says. “It was 120 degrees, you couldn’t think in that kind of heat.” Once when Mark went for supplies, he came back to find an agitated pride of lions, but no Delia.

“There were lions’ eyes everywhere, tails flashing,” Mark says. “I stopped next to the tent, called for Delia and didn’t hear an answer.”

Delia had squeezed herself into a tin trunk after seeing lions descend on the camp from every direction.

Mark yelled and tossed a trunk. The pride scattered. It was just one of many breathless encounters they would have with the animals.

“It was an Edenesque existence,” Mark says. “I remember a leopard walked right up to me, sat down, walked all around me and then wandered past me. We were part of this community of animals. We took great pains to never make them feel afraid.” 

Battle for the elephants

Eventually, the couple’s quest for a comparative study of lions led them north into neighboring Zambia where they hoped to find another “Eden.” They arrived at the North Luangwa National Park to find evidence of thousands of butchered elephants, a discovery that abruptly altered their research plans.

While they were setting up camp, gunfire crackled. They were stunned to learn that commercial ivory poachers were shooting 1,000 elephants a year and had killed 75 percent of the population. By the mid-90s, 93 percent of the elephants had been killed.

With the collapse of Zambia’s copper economy, the government depended heavily on poaching for revenue. Although the country has 19 national parks, only two still held wildlife. “We felt obligated to study the impact that this decimation was having on the elephants,” Mark says. “If you go to Africa and decide to do something about conservation, you can’t just say ‘we’re scientists, and we’re about pure research.’ It’s the responsibility of the field scientist to do more than just publish their work.”

They spent years meticulously recording the elephants’ behavior: tracking the elephants, darting them with tranquilizers, and attaching radio-collars to record migration and activity. It was their research that unlocked an extraordinary secret about the North Luangwa Valley elephants — those that were able to survive slaughter were reproducing at half the normal age for their species.

Normally, females didn’t have their first calves until they were 16. Here, pre-teen females, without the support of their mothers and aunts, were ovulating at age 6, mating with young rogue males, giving birth at age 8, and raising offspring in solitude. This was a concept unheard of in the intensely social matriarchal herds.

The orphaned elephants had found a way to survive. But without the guidance of older elephants, it meant they missed out on invaluable knowledge, bonding opportunities and protection.

The couple continued elephant research while fighting bands of poachers wielding AK-47’s. When gunfire erupted, Mark took off in their small plane to chase the poachers down.

“The danger and stress from the poaching was hard on our marriage,” Delia says. “I thought Mark was taking too many risks to airlift game scouts at night into poaching hot spots.”

But there were also rewards for their efforts. “Whenever we became discouraged in North Luangwa, which was almost every day, an elephant would walk into camp, or a child would thank us for our help,” Delia says. “We could not turn our backs on either one.”

A path to prosperity

It was during this chaos that the couple came up with the idea for economic alternatives for the communities trapped in the illegal wildlife trade.

“It was obvious to us that we had to offer these people an alternative to poaching,” Delia says. They succeeded by teaching local families agri-businesses including fish farming, sunflower seed pressing, beekeeping, carpentry and midwifery. “It started with 14 villages and it was a huge job,” she says. “Slowly, we drew other experts in. We did everything we could think of including building schools.”

Bit by bit, the idea caught fire. The rural Zambian businesses, collectively known as The North Luangwa Conservation Project, celebrated two decades of success this year. And current data shows a slight recovery with 2,200 elephants in the park.

“We forget,” Mark says, “that the human and wildlife community are part of the same community.” 

That belief is what distinguishes Mark and Delia from many other researchers, says Gregory McGruder, National Geographic’s director of lectures and public programs. “You can go in and study elephants but you can’t study them in the vacuum,” McGruder says. “That’s what’s so different about what they’re doing now. They’re focused on sustainable development in the area.”

Micro-business development and employment opportunities are essential for the success and survival of Zambia’ s rural people and its wildlife, agrees Alexandra Fuller, who spent part of her childhood in Zambia.  

“What Mark and Delia realized, crucially, is that the villagers needed to be independent of wildlife in order to want to preserve and respect it,” says Fuller, who wrote the critically acclaimed memoir Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight. “Only when you have the luxury of a full stomach and educated children and a happy family unit can you find time in your psyche to enjoy and want to preserve wildlife.”  

The success of their anti-poaching initiatives eventually made Mark and Delia so unpopular with the powerful and corrupt people in the region that they left Africa for their own safety.

A family commitment

Delia’s sister, Helen Dykes Cooper (AB ’66), was the executive director of the Owens Foundation when the North Luangwa Conservation Project was launched in 1986. Helen helped edit Mark and Delia’s books, and with husband Fred Cooper raised money for the foundation.

“When you go in to save elephants,” Helen Cooper says, “you don’t just save the elephants, you end up making it a greener spot on the earth. People can make a difference.”

“They made a deliberate decision that this is what they wanted to do for a lifetime,” says Fred Cooper (JD ’67). “They knew full well what they wanted to do involved real issues of danger. They committed themselves to disease-ridden, impoverished countries.”

The Coopers feared for Mark and Delia’s safety—and their son’s, when they let him travel to Zambia in 1995.

“Jay was 21. He was going to Africa to set up a computer lab in the middle of nowhere. I didn’t want him to go.” Helen Cooper says. “But Fred said ‘this experience will change his life forever.’ His work helped Mark and Delia by allowing them to create computer- generated maps using the data they had collected on different herds of elephants with global positioning systems.”

The Coopers hope more people will learn about the Owens Foundation and become part of the ongoing recovery of the park’s people and wildlife. Today Delia and Mark live in Idaho where they are working to conserve grizzly bears. They continue to support programs in North Luangwa.

Although the couple escaped death threats and close encounters with wildlife in Africa, they’ve since discovered the dangers in grizzly territory. In early August, Mark and a friend, Sam Testa, rode into mountains of the Cabinet-Yaak region in Montana, looking for grizzly. Just before dusk, Mark was thrown from his horse, Whiskey, and landed on his back across a fallen tree. Critically injured, he couldn’t move. Sam went for help. Hours later Mark was flown by helicopter to a Montana hospital.

The fall shattered seven of Mark’s ribs and caused one of his lungs to collapse. Five vertebrae had to be fused with titanium screws and rods, and bone grafts. He is recovering now, and he and Delia hope to resume the lecture tour for their latest book, Secrets of the Savanna, in the spring.

The stark and brilliant landscape of northern Idaho has captivated them. But in many ways, Africa’s last wild places have claimed them forever.

Kate Campbell is a freelance writer in Philadelphia.

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Click on image to enlarge

Photo courtesy of the Owens Foundation

Mark and Delia Owens were newlyweds when they sold their belongings and moved to Africa to study and help recover endangered wildlife. Their African adventure spanned more than two decades; they continue their conservation work today in Idaho. Photo courtesy of the Owens Foundation

Photo courtesy of the Owens Foundation

Photo courtesy of the Owens Foundation

Mark Owens attaches a radio tracking collar to a female elephant in the North Luangwa National Park in Zambia. He darted the elephant with a tranquilizer as he hovered above her in the Owens Foundation helicopter. Photo courtesy of the Owens Foundation

A Zambian woman tries out the new sewing machine installed by the Owenses. Sewing was one of many trades they initiated to help the local people sustain their economy without poaching elephants. Photo courtesy of the Owens Foundation

Delia shows a Ranger Rick wildlife magazine to children in a remote village of Zambia. It was the first time they had seen a color photograph. Photo courtesy of the Owens Foundation

Mark and Delia Owens in June at the Stone Mountain home of Delia's twin brother Bobby Dykes. Photo by Dot Paul

Photo courtesy of the Owens Foundation