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The first months of 1990 were a hopeful time at Marula-Puku. Bans on ivory sales in America and Europe in March 1989 and in the Far East in October spelled good news for the elephants of Zambia. When Mark and Delia started counting carcasses in the park four years ago, they were finding almost two dead elephants each day. Last January, for the first time in memory, there were none killed in North Luangwa. During the next few months there were only a few incidents of meat poaching. By July there were still no bush fires to signal the arrival of the gangs.
There were, however, omens that the peaceful interlude might soon end.
In June the government doubled the price of cornmeal, and food riots broke out in Lusaka. Then a group of army officers tried, and failed, to topple Kaunda. Instability in Africa usually means economic uncertainty, and that translates into dead elephants. But as August began in the Luangwa Valley, the turmoil in Lusaka seemed as distant as a vapor trail in the African sky.
The workday at Marula-Puku begins at 5 a.m., while the hyenas are still whooping in the dark valley.
Solar batteries run the lights and two computers in the office but where Mark and Delia catch up on paperwork until the camp staff arrives at seven. After their years of living in a tent in the Kalahari, this well-appointed camp seems like a Club Med to the Owenses.
But life is never easy here. Drinking water, which is pumped out of the muddy river, has to be filtered and then boiled for 20 minutes to avoid dysentery. Meals are cooked over an open campfire or in a primitive wood-burning stove. Supplies are hard to come by in Zambia, and fresh meat is a rarity at Marula-Puku. Delia knows at least 50 ways to serve beans.
The Owenses have spent most of their 18-year marriage in extreme isolation. Lucky they get along so well. Their personalities mesh. Delia is a relentless organizer, a maker of lists. Mark is more impulsive—as he puts it, "like the man who jumps on his horse and rides off in five directions." When they write, one can finish the other's sentences without fear of bodily harm. They tackle their jobs according to the divide-and-conquer system: Delia coordinates the community and education projects while Mark runs the work crews and the antipoaching campaign. "We feed on each other's intensity," says Delia. "Probably too much."
Long after sunset, a cool fluorescent glow spreads beneath the office windows. The Owenses don't seem to notice that it is impossible for two people to manage this job alone.
The stall warning screams as Mark aims his Cessna at a makeshift airstrip the size of a Band-Aid on the banks of the Mwaleshi River. This morning Mark is rotating two groups of eight anti-poaching scouts. (In all, the park has 31 scouts.)
"Mapalanye!" Mark calls a greeting in Chibemba, the local language. Half a dozen scouts trot across the short grass, trailed by three dusty captives in handcuffs: an old man, a young man and a 12-year-old boy. They are barefoot and dressed in rags.