The Owenses could have given up at that point without shame. Mark was two days short of his 41st birthday. Delia was 36. They were already famous—their book was selling snappily, and the National Geographic Society was filming a television special about them (African Odyssey, shown on PBS in 1988). They could have coasted into comfortable teaching jobs back in the States. Instead, they chose to start over again.
When the Owenses set up shop in Zambia, their friends and colleagues thought they were crazy. This nation, slightly larger than Texas, is a textbook example of what has gone wrong in Africa. When Zambia, previously known as Northern Rhodesia, gained independence from Great Britain in 1964, it was one of the continent's wealthiest countries. It had rich copper mines and fertile farmland. Then Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia's first and only president, nationalized many industries and shut down most private enterprises, including many small private farms. That, combined with plummeting copper prices and the strain of regional warfare—including the long Rhodesian War to the south—helped to drive the Zambian economy into the ground. Now this country of 7.5 million people is broke.
For the past 20 years, Zambia's wildlife-reserves have been killing fields for rhinos and elephants. Seventy-five thousand elephants perished in the Luangwa Valley alone. Corrupt businessmen and some government officials used the animals as their personal grubstakes. Rhino horn—which is marketed for dagger handles and folk medicines in Asia—and ivory became Zambia's most valuable commodities.
By 1986 North Luangwa was a park in name only. Shortly after Zambia gained independence, the government appropriated the land for a park and expelled the villagers who lived there, but then did nothing to protect or develop the area. The dispossessed people settled outside the park, where the soil is poor for farming. When the well-armed professional poaching gangs arrived, many villagers were forced to join in the plunder.
When the Owenses arrived on the scene in July 1986, there was only one faint, dry-weather track leading into the park. A dozen ragtag game guards lived in a forgotten outpost on the edge of the reserve, with no vehicles, no camping equipment and, often, no pay. They hunted in the park to survive.
"Everyone, from Zambian wildlife authorities to scientists to local ranchers, told us to forget about North Luangwa," Delia recalls. "They said there was absolutely no hope." By then the Owenses had made a career of ignoring reasonable advice.
"Everyone had told us it was impossible to work in the Kalahari," says Delia. "They said it was impossible for us to write a book together. You just don't listen when people say it's impossible. Besides, North Luangwa just didn't seem that hopeless to us. And it was worth saving."
What the valley did have was raw natural beauty. Despite the poaching, there were still plenty of animals in the park: cape buffalo, impala, zebra, kudu, leopards, lions and about 5,000 resourceful elephants that had evaded the hunters. There were stretches of lush riverine forest, rugged thorn country and golden grasslands. It was the kind of wilderness that foreign tourists might pay to see.
The Owenses came up with a plan. They would work with the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) to drive out the poachers. With funding from the Frankfurt Zoological Society and from their own Owens Foundation for Wildlife Conservation, they would work with the Zambian government and the local people to develop tourism. This would stimulate the local economy, and some park fees would go directly to the villages. Wildlife would become a valuable resource, and the animals would be worth more to the people alive than dead. The Owenses called the project "A Park for the People."
Four years later, to the astonishment of everyone but Mark and Delia, the plan seems to be working. Four tour operators are now bringing groups of American, European and Zambian tourists to the park for walking safaris, and other companies may soon join them. With the help of Marie Hill, an American volunteer who lives in Mpika, wildlife clubs have been set up in 25 village schools to spread the word about conservation. (The schools reach a total of about 10,000 students.) And for the first time in years, poaching is on the decline.