These poachers, Mark is told, were hired by black marketeers to hunt hippos near one of the new tourist camps. They were part of a gang of 30. The rest escaped. Poachers get paid 200 kwacha for a weeklong sortie. That's about $5, or enough to buy one can of powdered milk in the local shops.
"If I thought meat poaching was feeding hungry people, I'd be less inclined to try to stop it," says Mark. "But if the black marketeers wipe out the game here, they're robbing these local villagers of their own future."
Mark lectures the poachers on this point before he flies them off to the police station in Mpika. A scout translates. The old man dozes in the heat, the boy seems to listen, but the young man glowers at his American captor.
The Zambian government has made the Owenses honorary game rangers, which means they can make arrests and carry weapons. Delia drives around with an old .38 revolver under the seat of the Land Cruiser. Mark always carries a 9-mm Parabellum strapped in his holster.
Mark has been warned that poachers want to kill him. Poachers have already shot up one research camp in the southern Luangwa Valley and burned down a tourist camp in another park. All over Africa, conservationists who challenge the hunters are themselves becoming an endangered species. Dian Fossey, the primatologist who studied mountain gorillas in Rwanda, was murdered in 1985, and George Adamson, the naturalist who worked with lions in Kenya, was killed four years later. Both are thought to have been murdered by poachers.
So far the Owenses haven't been attacked. They take the precaution of posting round-the-clock guards on the airplane to prevent sabotage. They keep their travel plans secret to avoid an ambush. Then they try not to think about it.
"Our best defense is that we're working with the people," says Delia. "We've got a lot of friends around here."
There are many ways to die in this valley. Mosquitoes carry a killer strain of malaria. Crocodiles wait beneath the placid surface of the river. Mambas and cobras drop out of the rafters. But nothing—not snakes or crocs or poachers—scares Delia more than her husband's airplane.
Mark is a masterful bush pilot, but each flight is a crapshoot. To follow animals or to chase poachers, Mark often flies at tree level, where there is no margin for error. A bubble in the fuel line or a vulture in the prop can buy you the farm out here.
"I can't even think what I'd do if something happened to Mark," Delia says with a shudder. "We're so close now, it's like we're part of the same person. I'd lose it all in one shot."