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Most of the elephants in the park are so spooked by poachers that they run at the first whiff of humans. But this solitary bull, whom the Owenses aptly named Survivor, has made regular appearances at Marula-Puku for the past few months.
"This is the reward at the end of the day," says Mark. He is smiling now, watching as the elephant dips his trunk in the muddy river. "For some reason it always seems to be at a time when your spirits have ebbed, and you think you've had it, that something magic happens. Then Africa wins you back again."
The Unimog bucks like a roadhouse mechanical bull as Mark wrestles its front wheels down an embankment. Despite the abuse it deals him, this seven-ton all-terrain vehicle is Mark's favorite. He uses it as a bulldozer to clear airstrips and as a grader to tame rutted tracks. Tonight, when Mark parks it next to a combretum bush, the Mog serves as a darting blind.
The newly repaired speakers are set up as before, and Delia selects an irresistible medley of crunching bones and yips and growls to attract a pride of lions. Five minutes later three pairs of yellow eyes glow in the spotlight Delia sweeps over the short grass. Then a lioness steps coolly in front of the truck.
Pock! Mark hits her right behind the shoulder with a steel-tipped dart packed with 700 milligrams of Telazol, an anesthetic that should have her down in five minutes. The lioness flinches and leaps, turns in midair and hits the ground running. She dashes behind the bushes, heading toward the river.
"Damn!" Mark growls as he starts up the Mog. If the lioness makes it to the river or collapses in thick bush, things could get complicated. And very dangerous. She could drown, or she could fall prey to hyenas. The Mog churns over hummocks and warthog holes as Delia scours the floodplain with the spotlight. They find the lioness staggering like a drunk on the wide grassy bank. Then she's down.
"Perfect," says Delia, and the scientists go to work. The lioness should be out for an hour and a half. That is just enough time to measure her, check her age by the wear on her teeth—she is five or six years old, in her prime—and fit her with a heavy synthetic rubber collar in which a radio transmitter is embedded.
The rest of the lion pride watches from a distance. When one set of yellow eyes creeps closer, Mulenga, who has taken over the spotlight, dazzles the lion and it retreats. Mark and Delia work silently, fluidly, utterly absorbed in their tasks. They don't notice when, half an hour later, the spotlight blows its bulb. The backup spot doesn't work, and by the time the Owenses are ready to roll the lioness onto a wooden plank to weigh her, all that is available to keep the pride at bay is one four-cell flashlight that Mulenga sweeps in a circle, like a beacon on a grassy sea.
The next morning Mark and Delia drive back to the spot where they darted the lioness. Their radio receiver picks up a strong pulsing signal from across the river.
"She's probably sleeping it off somewhere," says Mark. He and Delia decide they will take a leisurely walk through the bush.