"The Owenses are doing a fantastic job," says Ackim Mwenya, deputy director of the NPWS. "They arrived just at the right time. Without them, by now we would have just written off North Luangwa National Park."
This past January, at the height of the rainy season, a truckload of mud-soaked game guards arrived at Marula-Puku to deliver an urgent message to Mark and Delia. The note said their presence was required at President Kaunda's office in the capital, Lusaka, by noon the next day. The couple felt an ominous sense of d�j� vu.
"Oh, no, what did we do now?" Delia said to Mark as they packed their bags. For the next 18 hours, as the Owenses forded flooded streams and winched their Land Cruiser along rain-slick mountain tracks, they didn't know if they were going to be praised or deported. When they arrived at State House, Kaunda was waiting. He thanked them for a job well done. Then he offered them lunch.
Naturally the Owenses were encouraged by the government's positive response. They are even more pleased with the mood in the villages around the park.
At first the locals were suspicious and hostile. To win them over, the Owenses handed out T-shirts to the children. They administered first aid in the villages. Mark flew over schoolyards and dropped soccer balls inscribed with the words DON'T POACH, PLAY SOCCER!
"As far as I can see, we're getting through to the people," says Delia. "Imagine us walking into these primitive villages where the children are hungry, and saying: 'If you stop shooting wild animals, tourists from America will come, and you'll have jobs and food.' We thought they'd look at us like we were crazy. But they've caught on."
Until more tourists come, Mark and Delia are pumping up the local economy. It doesn't take much. They loaned one village a maize-grinding mill so villagers would stop trading poached meat for ground cornmeal, their staple food. The only problem with this tactic is, what happens if the money tap runs dry?
"We feel like we're making successes," says Mark. "But we're afraid we're creating a crystal palace that will fall apart the minute we leave here."
To prevent this, the Owenses are training Zambians to take over the project someday. William Mulenga, the 23-year-old son of a poor farmer, is learning to be a research assistant.
"The coming of Mark and Delia Owens was just an arrangement by God for us in Zambia," says Mulenga in his musical, charmingly formal English. "Myself, I would say that because of them a few people have started to realize that wildlife is very important to the economy of this country."