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Published: Sunday, 7/2/2006

Saving animals, finding themselves

BY STEVE POLLICK
BLADE OUTDOORS EDITOR

SECRETS OF THE SAVANNA. By Mark and Delia Owens. Houghton Mifflin. 256 pages. $26.

Mark and Delia Owens, the well-known African wildlife researchers, nowadays mostly are tucked up in a remote valley in northern Idaho, trying to conserve grizzly bears.

But their hearts remain in the 5,000-square-mile wilds of North Luangwa National Park in the African nation of Zambia. You can tell that by reading Secrets of the Savanna, their latest book.

They wrote it to help sustain the daily lives of 20,000 Zambians and the dwindling numbers of wild creatures, from elephants to wildbeest, which they struggled at great personal peril to conserve.

The disappearing creatures and the remote wild splendor of the North Luangwa Valley are what drew them there in 1986. What good, they in effect told themselves, is Eden without animals? The animals were vanishing because of greed the elephants for ivory, and because of poverty, other animals for bushmeat to fill hunger-knotted bellies.

Newcomers to the lives of Mark and Delia should know that this renowned couple he is a farm boy from Delta, Ohio, she is a small-town girl from Georgia began an idealistic adventure to save the wild world more than 30 years ago.

They bought a beat-up Land Rover, collected some secondhand camping gear, and lived like nature s paupers for seven years in the Kalahari Desert of Botswana. Their early years of sacrifice yielded some stunning scientific findings about everything from lions to hyenas.

That experience also launched their rise to wildlife-research stardom with Cry of the Kalahari, their bestselling first book. The Owenses got kicked out of Botswana for rocking the political boat and they eventually lit on North Luangwa, an African Eden turned poachers paradise.

Their praiseworthy anti-poaching campaign and first-class observations of North Luangwa s elephants in particular earned them admission to the elite club of accepted African wildlife researchers. It also resulted in their next, much-heralded book, Eye of the Elephant.

For a complex set of reasons, including threats to their lives, they left their North Luangwa Conservation Project in 1997 after a decade of blood, sweat, and tears. They left it in the capable hands of native Zambians whom they trained and nurtured. But they have not returned, for reasons gleaned from their chapters in Secrets.

It was more successful that we had ever dreamed, said Delia in an interview. The success, adds Mark, is as much a tribute to the Zambian people and our staff as ourselves. In 1996, not a single elephant was shot in North Luangwa. The Conservation Project also created jobs, provided health care, education, and crops and food processing done by and for the local people.

After Zambia, the couple tried to come home. But they re-learned the lesson of the old saying, you can never go home again.

Mark tells of turning down his old Fulton County farm road and seeing everything he remembered at least in terms of family farm romance gone.

So he and Delia began a slow, deliberate search for a place to set new roots and for a wildlife cause in which to lose themselves again.

That turned out to be Thunder Mountain Ranch in northern Idaho, a rundown, hardscrabble place in need of help, the kind help they willingly give. The cause became the grizzly bear, and resulted in some fascinating, nontraditional findings typically Owensian about what needs to be done, and not done, to conserve these magnificent creatures in the lower 48 states.

Species like grizzlies get relegated to mountaintops, explains Mark, when the bottomlands are the heart of their spring and summer range for them to fatten up for the winter. So they are working to conserve wetlands that may be shown unproductive for farm crops but good for grizzlies.

Mark and Delia, who plan to visit Mark s boyhood home territory here in October, may have written Secrets to help support the love of their lives North Luangwa and its people and wildlife. But along the way they revealed that their collective life s work has been as much about self-discovery, about maturing as a couple, as it has about helping downtrodden and neglected people or poacher-endangered and human population-encroached animals.

Secrets is a good read, and Owens fans will learn a lot about this dedicated couple.

Contact Steve Pollick at: spollick@theblade.com or 419-724-6068.



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