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As Mark readies his darting rifle, Delia shines a spotlight over the clearing. Four sets of glowing green eyes bob in the black night. It's a pack of hyenas racing to be first in line at the orgy.
The sound effects sputter out. As Mark tinkers with the speaker wires, the hyenas lope off dejectedly.
"All dressed up and no place to go," Delia sighs as she starts to pack up the gear. There will be no lions tonight.
The Owenses live in a cluster of stone-and-thatch buts by the banks of the Lubonga River, a placid tributary of the Mwaleshi. "The Mwaleshi flows into the wild Luangwa River, which sluices along the eastern edge of the game park. Mark and Delia and the eight or so members of their staff at the Marula-Puku Research Center are the only year-round residents in the park. If they need to run to the store, it's a hard six-hour drive to Mpika, the nearest town. In the rainy season, from November through April, Mark and Delia sometimes can't get out at all.
The Owenses and their work crews have cut dozens of miles of tracks in the valley, but most areas are reachable only on foot or in the single-engine Cessna that Mark flies around the park and usually lands on the riverbanks.
Trackless bush and swollen rivers, however, don't deter unwelcome visitors to this African Eden. North Luangwa is plagued by poachers who slip into the valley armed with automatic rifles and walk out laden with elephant tusks and game meat. The poachers set fire to the bush to make it easier to ambush the animals. The blackened floodplains then wash into the rivers when the hard rains come. Unless somebody stops this cycle of destruction, one of Africa's last great wildlife sanctuaries will turn into a wasteland.
"This is the 11th hour for Africa's wildlife," says Mark. "Scientists can no longer afford to sit in the field and study animals while they disappear in front of their noses. If conservation projects like this one don't work, we're going to lose it all."
During the last two decades an onslaught of commercial poaching has drastically reduced the herds throughout Africa. Ninety-five percent of the black rhinoceroses and half of Africa's 1.3 million elephants have been killed. At the same time, human populations have expanded into the game areas. The writing was on the wall as far back as 1971, the year Mark Owens and Delia Dykes decided they had to get to Africa before it was too late.