"We really need this," says Delia. "Sometimes it feels like the poachers have captured us. In the backs of our minds we feel like we're losing touch with the animals, even though we know that the other things we do are just as important."
Mark shoulders his Winchester and sets off at a trot through nine-foot-high buffalo grass. He likes to get as close as he can to wild animals, to "commune with them" and test their reactions to humans. Now he charges up a sandbank and finds a hippo sleeping in a lagoon. It awakens with a roar of outrage. "Easy, girl" is all Mark says as he backs away and the hippo thunders off to the safety of the river. Later Mark surprises two male lions, also sleeping, who growl a threat before they retreat toward the tree line.
"Maybe I shouldn't walk so fast," Mark says, chuckling again.
That afternoon he and Delia wash off the dust in the shallows of the river, keeping an eye out for crocodiles as they shampoo each other's hair. They sit for a while on the sandy bank watching the low scudding clouds take on color as the sun drops in the sky. Then they see it: a dark cloud bank that isn't clouds. It is smoke from a brushfire, and it means only one thing.
"Poachers!" Mark spits as he pulls on his clothes. "It's starting again. I can feel it."
An hour before dawn the air is thick and cold. There is no moon. Mark bears down on the throttle and guides the Cessna along the trail of burning diesel-soaked rags that outline the darkened airstrip. He lifts off and banks, climbing, heading southeast to the confluence of the Mwaleshi and Mufabushi rivers.
Yesterday afternoon a squad of game guards delivered a message from NPWS headquarters. A gang of 100 poachers had been spotted in the south end of the park.
In daylight, poachers can hide from the airplane. All Mark ever finds are the empty meat-drying racks and the vulture-picked carcasses that hunters leave in their wake. Some of the poachers believe they are protected by juju, magic potions they drink to make themselves invisible in the bush. But on cold nights in a valley thick with lions, even poachers have to make campfires.
As Mark climbs he checks his position by the pewter surface of the river, which reflects dim glints of starlight. When he reaches 5,000 feet, the river is a faint memory in the murky haze below. He lifts into a strange twilight and loses sight of the horizon in the glow of dawn. Fifteen minutes later he has them: a dozen campfires, strung out like a ruby necklace on the black plain.
"I see you, you bastards," he says. "Where's your magic now?"