And He Walked His Days Under African Skies

Jeffrey Goldberg in The New Yorker:

In the early nineteen-seventies, Mark and Delia Owens, two graduate students in biology at the University of Georgia, were seized by the idea of resettling in remotest Africa. They organized an auction, sold their possessions, and used the modest proceeds to buy camping equipment and a pair of one-way air tickets to Johannesburg. When they arrived, in January, 1974, Delia, the daughter of a Georgia trucking executive, was twenty-four years old. Mark, who grew up on a farm west of Toledo, Ohio, was twenty-nine, the divorced father of a four-year-old boy named Christopher.

Mark and Delia had scoured the map of Africa, searching for a site so isolated that its wildlife would have no knowledge, and no fear, of humans. They eventually found their way to a place called Deception Valley, in the Kalahari Desert of Botswana. It was a perfect spot for the Owenses to make camp. The wildlife there had not been depleted by poaching, as it had been in other parts of Africa, and though the valley was in many ways an unforgiving place—temperatures can climb above a hundred and twenty degrees in summer—it was distant enough from the capital, Gaborone, to insure that they would be left alone to do their work. The Kalahari is virtually empty of people: the Owenses later wrote of living with only “a few bands of Stone Age Bushmen in an area larger than Ireland.”


In the Northern Province of Zambia they discovered a place that seemed to fit their needs. The North Luangwa National Park, named for the river that forms its eastern boundary, is twenty-four hundred square miles of mopane forests, grasslands, leadwood and sausage trees, and lagoons filled with hippos and crocodiles. Outside its borders is more wilderness, thousands of square miles of forests and plains inhabited, like the park, by a great range of Africa’s most extraordinary mammals. The profusion of wildlife has made the Luangwa Valley a dangerous place for humans. Each year, crocodiles, elephants, and lions kill dozens of people who live in the mud-hut villages that are scattered across the region.

By the time the Owenses arrived, in 1986, North Luangwa was, in their telling, a national park in name only, undeveloped, unvisited, unguarded, and inaccessible by vehicle for much of the year because of flooding. Mark Owens said of the park, “Here’s where civilization ends.” In a lecture at the National Geographic Society, in Washington, D.C., in 2006, he described the challenge of settling in North Luangwa. “We had to first survey a way in from the air. And we found an old poachers’ route that snaked its way down the three-thousand-foot Muchinga Escarpment,” he said. “So we set about doing that . . . encountering creeks and rivers and streams, of course, that had to be crossed. And no way to cross except these footbridges.”

In “The Eye of the Elephant,” the book the Owenses published in 1992 about their experience in Zambia, they described the moment they realized that they could find contentment in North Luangwa. They were visiting the confluence of the Mwaleshi and Luangwa Rivers for the first time. “The floodplains near and far are spotted with wild animals: six hundred buffalo grazing across a grassy plain; fifty zebras ambling toward the river to drink; a herd of waterbuck lying on a sandbar downstream,” Mark wrote. “Where the two rivers join is a large pool crowded with a hundred hippos, their piggy eyes on us, their nostrils blowing plumes of water in the setting sun as they twiddle their ears. After our tangle with the bramble and the broken woodland, Africa has won us back.”


The Owenses, operating out of the park and out of an office in Mpika, the largest town in the area, had trained, fed, clothed, and armed about sixty motivated scouts in the park. Their small industries kept people employed. Medical care for the villagers had also improved; over time, the Owenses supplied clinics, held workshops in AIDS prevention, and trained traditional birth attendants. The most significant advance, though, came from outside the park. In 1989, the United Nations Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species voted to ban the selling of African elephant parts. As legal importation became impossible and legitimate dealers abandoned the business, the price of ivory dropped by as much as ninety-six per cent. The number of poached elephants in North Luangwa decreased, too; the Owenses reported twelve dead elephants in 1991, compared with a thousand the year they arrived.

Still, poachers continued to infiltrate the park, and to the Owenses they seemed more dangerous than ever. Word reached them that one band of commercial poachers had targeted them for assassination, blaming them for ruining their business. These threats—and the shooting of an elephant near their camp—provoked Mark to intensify his antipoaching activities. For some time, he had made regular night flights over the park, in search of meat-drying racks and the campfires of poachers; he would fly low, intentionally backfiring the plane and frightening away the hunters.


ABC dispatched a crew to North Luangwa in 1994, led by a producer named Andrew Tkach, with Deborah Amos as the reporter. Tkach returned in the summer of 1995, with Meredith Vieira in Amos’s place. The episode aired nationally on March 30, 1996. The hour-long show, titled “Deadly Game: The Mark and Delia Owens Story,” opened with an onscreen warning: “The following program contains some scenes of violence which might be upsetting to viewers.” Diane Sawyer, who shared anchor duty on the show with Barbara Walters, introduced the broadcast from New York. “They went halfway around the world to follow a dream,” Sawyer said. “An idealistic American couple—young, in love. But a strange place and time would test that love.”

Mark Owens is seen early in the documentary wearing camouflage, and with a pistol at his waist. “It was like going back in time to a time before, when all was right with the earth,” he says. Meredith Vieira, who is now the co-host of NBC’s “Today” show, was then the chief correspondent for “Turning Point” and appears throughout the program. “This is the real Africa, the way it was two hundred years ago,” Delia tells Vieira. Vieira, who is shown accompanying the Owenses on a walk to see a family of elephants, describes North Luangwa as an “uncharted wilderness,” and discusses the difficulties the Owenses faced in combatting poachers: “For more than three years, the Owenses begged unsuccessfully for government support.” Vieira reports that the Owenses, frustrated, decided to work around the government.

The confrontation with poachers brought troubles. Delia Owens tells Vieira that “there were several assassination teams that were sent down by poachers with the intent to kill us. I mean, lions don’t frighten me nearly as much as humans.” Vieira’s voice-over suggests that the threats created trouble in the marriage, and Delia says of her husband, “He was just out there. I couldn’t reach him anymore. He had become—he doesn’t like for me to say it, but I think he had become truly obsessed.”

The film cuts to Mark Owens: “To fly at night, to be shot at time and again, even to be hit, to go back up and keep doing it night after night without—without a military to support you, knowing that you’re ruining your marriage—”

Delia Owens says, “I kept saying to Mark, ‘If you die, then we’re going to lose everything. Then we won’t be able to save the park.’ I was so sick with worry. And you shouldn’t love anybody that much, but I did, so I just reached the point I just couldn’t take that anymore.”

The documentary suggests that the conflict between scouts and poachers had grown violent. Mark Owens is seen supervising the scouts’ firearms training, and at various points in the broadcast he carries a pistol, a hunting rifle, and an AR-15 automatic rifle. Later, he orders his scouts, “If you see poachers in the national park with a firearm, you don’t wait for them to shoot at you. You shoot at them first, all right? That means when you see the whites of his eyes, and if he has a firearm, you kill him before he kills you, because if you let him get—if you let him turn on you with an AK-47, he’s going to cut you in two. So go out there and get them. Go get them, O.K.?”

He explains to Vieira, “I’m not comfortable at all with it. I’m absolutely uncomfortable with it. Sometimes poachers are killed and occasionally scouts have been killed.”

There is no mention in “The Eye of the Elephant” of incidents in which scouts killed poachers. But on “Turning Point” Owens says, “On some occasions, I do pick scouts up, and if they’ve killed anybody they aren’t going to tell me.”

Delia tells Vieira, “It was a moral dilemma that we had to go through. But we made the decision: Yes, we would continue to support the scouts.”

Then comes an arresting sequence, one seldom seen on national television: the killing of a human. Vieira introduces the scene: “We were allowed to accompany patrols in Zambia after we agreed not to identify those involved, should a shooting occur. On this mission, we would witness the ultimate price paid by a suspected poacher.” A game scout in a green uniform walks in what appears to be a recently abandoned campsite. A pouch on the ground contains shotgun shells, and the scout removes a few of them to show the camera. The scout waits for the person camping there, a suspected poacher, to return. A new scene begins, and Vieira continues her voice-over: “Our cameras begin rolling again after a shot is fired at the returning trespasser.”

Amy Davidson at New Yorker:

Although Mark Owens had no military experience, he came to treat Zambia as a war zone (one Zambian described how “he ‘Apocalypse Now’ed into the [safari] camp with his helicopter”), equipping and training anti-poaching game scouts for confrontations with poachers. The shooting of a suspected poacher and the apparent moment of his death was filmed by an ABC crew that had come to Zambia to document the Owenses’ work; the case remains an open homicide investigation in Zambia.


Goldberg writes that in the ABC documentary, Meredith Vieira, the correspondent (who was not present at the shooting), says in a voice-over, as the shots are fired, “The bodies of the poachers are often left where they fall for the animals to eat.” She pauses, and says, “Conservation. Morality. Africa.” Those are broad words that, in this case, answer little. Goldberg spent a long time on this story, and travelled to Zambian villages, small New England towns, and an isolated ranch in Idaho to try to get some answers. In the course of his research, a witness to the shooting named the man who fired the first and final shots—someone who had not previously been publicly known as a suspect. (The man denies that he was involved.) But there are other, harder questions raised by Goldberg’s piece that go beyond the murder mystery. Is it acceptable for a human to be killed in a fight over animals? What is the responsibility of a journalist who sees such a thing? And what does it mean to simply say “Africa”—what view of Africa and of Africans put these events in motion?

Ta-Nehisi Coates:

Jeff has a piece in this week’s New Yorker that checks in, I’ve heard, at some 17,000 words. It’s a rather incredible take on a group of American preservationists who head to Africa and promptly lose their minds. Most impressive to me is just watching is the second half of the piece where we watch Jeff chase down lead after lead until he lands in square in front of his quarry:

The Owenses became involved in a state-sponsored effort to trap and tag the region’s few remaining grizzlies. Darrell Kerby, a former mayor of Bonners Ferry, the nearest town to the Owenses’ ranch, said that, over time, Mark Owens became more moderate in his approach to his neighbors. “He realized he couldn’t come in and just tell people what to do,” Kerby said. “This isn’t Africa.”

One day this winter, I made a visit to their ranch. The Owenses had long declined to speak with me. It was snowing when I arrived, and the clouds had settled on the slopes of the mountains behind their log cabin.

As I pulled up their drive, I saw Delia Owens emerging from a barn on the property. She was feeding hay to a herd of deer that had gathered near their cabin. Delia became agitated when I introduced myself. “I’m going to have a stroke right now. I’m going to have a heart attack,” she said. “How in the hell did you find us?”
He found you by being a bad-ass. When I was young, my first editor used to say he liked to take writers and make them reporters, not the other way around. The assumption was that writing was something more innate. I’m not totally convinced of that, as I think reporting often comes from an insatiable curiosity.

Nevertheless, I was a writer who, as he saw it, had to be made into a reporter. It took years for me to develop the work-ethic and willingness to make call after call after call. As a consequence, I’ve always fetishized great reporters, and deified great reporters who could also write. It’s something to read this piece. I feel like I’m there with Jeff making all those calls. Check it out. It’s a ripping good time

Stephanie Clifford and Brian Stelter in NYT:

That confidentiality, Mr. Goldberg writes, prevented some crew members from speaking openly about the shooting. “What kind of confidentiality agreement could you possibly have that prohibits you from identifying a perpetrator of a homicide?” said Mr. Goldberg, now a national correspondent at The Atlantic, who began reporting the story in 2001. “There are still mysteries here.”

It was only once the footage was shown in 1996 that the Zambian government began an investigation into the shooting. Biemba Musole, a Zambian deputy commissioner in charge of criminal investigations, was blunt in an interview with Mr. Goldberg. “The ABC News show is an accessory to murder,” he said, according to the article.

An ABC spokesman, Jeffrey Schneider, said the network had not heard from the Zambian government about an investigation.

Lawyers for the Owenses say there was no evidence that a killing even took place. “No evidence at all was found that anybody had been killed — no missing persons report, no nothing,” said Donald Zachary, a lawyer for the couple. “The whole premise that there was a killing seems to be unsubstantiated.”

Their lawyers also said it was unclear that the ABC footage was filmed in the same location as the couple’s work. In a letter to donors after the documentary was shown, the Owenses said they were not involved in the events.

Mr. Schneider of ABC emphasized that the executives and producers involved in the 1996 report no longer worked for the news division.

“Today, when we enter into any kind of agreement involving confidentiality, we try very hard to walk all the way around it, to ferret out every potential legal and ethical question that could arise, and then make a decision about how to handle confidentiality,” Mr. Schneider said in an interview.

Ms. Vieira, now a host of “Today” on NBC, said in a voice mail message on Sunday that the shooting took place before she arrived in Zambia. “I thought it was never clear who had fired the gun,” she said.

Ms. Vieira also said she had no “real recollection” of an agreement not to identify the people on the patrols.

“I don’t believe that ABC would — if they knew that somebody had killed someone, I don’t think they would be complicit,” she said. “I would find that hard to believe.”

C Neal at The Vigorous North:

These crimes, and the American media’s permissive, even reverent attitude towards them, illustrate some uncomfortable truths about traditional environmentalism. First, it illustrates the arrogance of the myths we keep about an Edenic, pre-civilized nature, or of Nature as a place where there are no people. The truth is that people have lived in the wild for a million years, and they have important roles in natural ecosystems – we’re part of nature, not above it.

Many of the alleged “poachers” in Zambia were recent descendants of natives who had hunted in North Luangwa for generations before British colonialists expelled them to create an artificially human-free “park” in the 19th century. Americans did the same thing to Blackfoot tribes in Glacier National Park and to the Nez Perce who lived in Yellowstone. The idea of a wild frontier without human neighbors is closely bound to the history of atrocities from American and European colonial ambitions.

Second, the Owens story reveals how, as with any important cause, environmentalism can sometimes grow to seem so important to its adherents that it supersedes their own sense of humanity. Mark Owens claimed to be sickened at the gunfire exchanged between his patrols and the poachers. But nevertheless he went out every night in his plane to do battle with them. For him, protecting (and perhaps avenging) the lives of the park’s elephants was more important than human life – even if it ended up being his own.

I won’t spoil it for you, but there’s a substantial Maine connection to the story as well. Goldberg’s report takes a taut 17,000 words to cover all the angles, and for such a complicated story – one that spans several decades and involves dozens of characters – the article maintains a tight sense of suspense throughout. I won’t even bother linking to the online version – find or borrow a copy of the magazine and enjoy it over the course of a long evening.

Louisa Lombard:

As I read, I kept waiting for the climax. OK, I thought, so the Owenses were perhaps involved in the murder of one person. What else? This thought was immediately followed by another: has my time in Central Africa made me so cynical that I no longer react with outrage to the killing of an unarmed “trespasser”? Perhaps.
But I think my reaction stemmed less from cynicism than from Goldberg’s relentless focus on this one charismatic American couple at the expense of placing them within a larger perspective — a larger perspective that would in fact have been more chilling. For many people are killed every year in the name of combating poaching across the continent.
In CAR, militarized anti-poaching is done by a parastatal “project” funded by the European Union. (The project will end in July, at which point it will be replaced; its successor aims to critically examine the management of space in CAR, which hopefully will diminish the death toll of poachers, anti-poaching guards, cattle, elephants, and other animals.) In the past twenty years, this work has been done by French soldiers (“securing the borders”); an American conservationist (his efforts never really got off the ground, though, because the South African mercenary in his employ got into diamonds and attempted murder and other scandals); Russian former French Foreign Legionnaires funded by safari hunters…I could continue.
The well-armed poachers come in increasingly large groups (up to one hundred strong, with camels and donkeys), and, according to the anti-poaching guards, they shoot first. These are not people you can ask nicely to please not kill the elephants and go home. The poachers, who generally come from Sudan, used to target CAR’s north and east, closer to home. But they’ve killed all the elephants there, and the poachers have now penetrated as far as the southwest, and even Cameroon. Because of this dire situation, appearance alone suffice as justification for the guards to kill an interloper. It is war between the anti-poaching guards and the poachers and cattleherders who seek to profit from CAR’s vast, sparsely-populated terrain. Only it’s a war that is largely hidden from the outside world.
(I once spoke with a man who does militarized anti-poaching work about the fall from grace of one of his predecessors. The predecessor had apparently mutilated, or allowed his men to mutilate, the corpses of poachers they killed. I suggested that this was why he had been kicked out. My interlocutor, though, disagreed. The problem was not that he mutilated bodies. The problem was that he took photos, and, when he had a falling out with a few people, those photos made their way into the European press.)
There is a case to be made for militarized anti-poaching work. Richard Leakey makes it eloquently in Wildlife Wars, his book about his tenure as head of the Kenya Wildlife Services. It is a difficult issue that demands a sustained examination. But focusing on Owenses, and the fall-out from one particular incident, risks masking that what they appear to have done/abetted slots uncomfortably into a widespread division of labor in the conservation world. I once spoke with a director at a reputable international conservation organization, who explained his personal opinion: militarized anti-poaching work is necessary, and our programs would be useless without it, but we can’t do it, or say we support it, because of the outcry. Donors wooed with fundraising entreaties full of photos of furry friends would be scandalized. Again, the message is that it’s OK as long as it is hidden.

Ross Douthat:

But the prosecutorial spirit of Goldberg’s story notwithstanding, its vivid and meticulous reporting also makes it remarkably easy to relate to the Owenses’ trajectory. The endpoint proved deadly, but the couple was working, from the first, in an incredibly difficult situation, trying to save some of the world’s most remarkable animals from destruction with little or no assistance from the Zambian authorities (such as they were). The poachers seemed to have all the advantages: Money, guns, tight connections to the locals, and the gangster-ish ability to cross the legal and moral lines that the conservationists tried to respect, at least at first. To the Owenses, it no doubt felt like they had become players in a Western — Shane confronting the cattle barons, Gary Cooper taking on the Miller gang, Ransom Stoddard facing off against Liberty Valance. And we all know how those stories are supposed to end: With fundamentally-virtuous people doing what had to be done to tame a lawless country, and leaving the delicate ethical arguments about ends and means to the next generation.

This wasn’t a movie, and Zambia wasn’t their country. But if it’s important to stand outside the Owenses’ strange story and pass judgment, it’s also important to step inside it and recognize how understandable every step they took probably felt, how easy it was to justify going to extremes, and how the fine the line can be between heroism and something much darker. And it’s the great virtue of Goldberg’s piece that it allows you to move between these two perspectives, by exposing not only its subjects’ apparent crimes but also the fraught and hard-to-fathom context in which they happened.

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Filed under Africa, Animal Rights, Crime, Mainstream

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