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They met in protozoology class at the University of Georgia. Delia was an undergraduate zoology student, the high-spirited daughter of a trucking-company executive in Thomasville, Ga. Mark was a graduate student in science education, specializing in biology. He had grown up on a farm near Delta, Ohio. He was about to be divorced from his wife, with whom he had a young son. Mark wore Bermuda shorts, carried a briefcase to class and, to the horror of Delia's long-haired housemates, moonlighted as a campus cop.
The unlikely couple found that they shared a passion for the great outdoors, and both dreamed of studying animals in Africa. One day during their campus courtship, Mark and Delia attended a lecture on Africa's vanishing wildlife. That was it. They decided that if they waited to complete their degrees, the animals would be gone before they got there.
They dropped out of school. Mark took a job driving the crusher at a stone quarry, and Delia sold china in a department store and worked at odd jobs to save enough money to finance their research. They were married on New Year's Eve 1972, and a year later they auctioned off everything they owned—pots, pans, car and TV—and set off for Africa. They had two plane tickets, a pup tent, a change of clothes and $6,000.
Their plan was to find a pristine wilderness where the animals had never been studied. They chose the Kalahari Desert in Botswana, a landlocked nation bordering South Africa. With a leaky water drum lashed to their third-hand Land Rover, the Owenses took off amid the sizzling sand dunes to search for a research site. They settled in the Deception Valley, a place without water or roads.
Besides a scattering of nomadic bushmen, Mark and Delia were the only people within an area the size of Ireland. They nearly starved when their savings dwindled. They almost died of thirst. Their camp was blown down by squalls in the violent rainy season and nearly consumed by wildfires during the hot dry months, when temperatures soared to 120�.
But the Owenses got what they had come for. While living amid wildlife that had no natural fear of humans, the young scientists learned new things about animal behavior. They discovered that lions can live for months without water, surviving on the blood of their kills. They found that brown hyenas, once thought to be solitary creatures, raise their young in communal dens. Mark and Delia's ground-breaking research eventually earned them modest grants from the National Geographic Society and from Germany's Frankfurt Zoological Society.
The late '70s were years of relentless drought in southern Africa. As the Owenses tracked lions to the edges of the Central Kalahari Reserve, they discovered an ecological calamity. Tens of thousands of wildebeests were dying because the Botswana government had fenced off the northern part of the reserve to keep wild game out of cattle ranges. This also kept wildlife away from its only source of water.
Mark and Delia appealed to the government to create a migratory corridor in the fence line so the wildebeests and other animals could get to the water. When the Owenses were ignored, they wrote articles in U.S. and South African publications detailing the crisis. Embarrassed officials eventually accepted their recommendations. But Mark and Delia had made powerful enemies among Botswana's politicians.
The Owenses returned to the U.S. in 1981 to continue work on their doctorates at the University of California at Davis and to write their book. They returned to the Deception Valley in April 1985, anxious to get back to their research. But only a few weeks later they received an urgent radio message to report to the immigration authorities in Botswana's capital, Gaborone, 345 miles away. Once there, they were detained, fingerprinted like criminals and given three hours to leave the country. There was never an official explanation. The Owenses felt they were finally paying the price for having challenged the government.
"It was the low point of our lives," Mark remembers. "We lost everything that mattered to us."