The Eye of the Elephant

by Delia and Mark Owens. Ticknor & Fields, 1993.

On May 15, 1985, the American couple Delia and Mark Owens were thrown out of Botswana, where they had lived in tents for seven years, studying the lions and hyenas of the Kalahari Desert. Cattlemen had built miles of fences along the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, blocking wildebeest and other antelopes from reaching water during drought, and killing thousands. The Owenses' protests rendered them (temporarily) personae non grata, or "Prohibited Immigrants" in government terminology.

The Owenses cast about for another African wilderness where they could live and study animals, and eventually they found one: a tract of remote land along the Muchinga Mountains, east of Mpika in Zambia. The area was already part of a national park, but despite this nominal protection the couple soon found that poachers operated with impunity inside the park boundaries. A half-dozen major ivory poachers, based in the village of Mwamfushi, led assault teams armed with AK-47s into the park. Ordinary villagers, driven by hunger, poached elephants and other wildlife for food. And as it turned out, the game scouts assigned by the government to protect the park and its wildlife did some poaching of their own. "Since 1973," writes Mark Owens (whose chapters alternate with his wife's), "between seventy-five thousand and one hundred thousand elephants have been poached in the Luangwa Valley as a whole; that's roughly one for every word in this book." The emphasis is his own.

Conservationists of the past, often more comfortable with animals than people, have fueled the conflict between the needs of Africans and of African wildlife. The Owenses, to their credit, recognize that successful conservation efforts must provide something for everyone. "Perhaps if local people who live near national parks could benefit directly from them, for example through tourism, they would recognize the economic value of wild animals and work to conserve them." With creativity and tireless energy, the Owenses visit the surrounding settlements, offering sewing machines, grain mills, soccer balls, and jobs in exchange for promises to stop poaching and information on the worst of the bandits, and reinforcing their gifts with a heavy dose of pro-wildlife speeches and puppet shows.

The Owenses do all they can to prod the local game scouts into going on patrol against the poachers: spotting the poachers from a small plane and even carrying the scouts to the vicinity. But because the scouts are woefully underarmed and underequipped, and because some are in cahoots with the poachers, pillars of smoke and circling vultures continue to mark the mutilated bodies of more dead elephants. Mark Owens, an experienced bush pilot, eventually goes on a series of risky solo raids against the poachers, buzzing them from the air and firing noisy but harmless cherry bombs at them. The major poachers retaliate, shooting up the homes of the Owenses' assistants, poisoning villagers who cooperate with them, and coming very close to assassinating the Owenses themselves.

The Owenses have little to say about Zambian culture, but they describe the personalities of their beloved elephants with great sensitivity, and provide a vivid picture of one of the last extensive African wildernesses: "an area the size of Delaware with no roads, no buildings, and no people." They are scathing in their contempt for certain useless game scouts, brutal poachers, and corrupt officials, but they take care to dig into the reasons for some of this behavior, and they are warmly appreciative (if a little patronizing) of the loyalty and courage of the "guys" who work with them at their camp. Though for most of the book it appears that they may be killed at any moment, or driven out of Zambia as they were driven out of Botswana, unexpected developments conclude the book on an improbably hopeful note.

From The Eye of the Elephant:

Elephants can move through the bush as quietly as kittens, but when they feed, they make a noisy racket as they strip leaves from a branch or topple small trees. Whether I'm working at the solar-powered computer, building the fire, or reading, I know where Survivor is by his loud slurps. At night he drifts through the sleeping camp like a large moon shadow. Lying in bed, I am lulled to sleep by the stirring wind, his soft footfalls, and the rustling leaves -- the song of Survivor.

One night as he forages in front of the cottage, I cannot sleep, or perhaps do not want to. I get up and ease the door open. The half-moon winks through the marula leaves as Survivor feeds beneath the tree ten yards from where I stand. Inching forward, watching his every move, I step onto the stone verandah and slowly sit on the doorstep. Gracefully he turns to face me, lifting his trunk to take in my scent. He immediately relaxes, lowering his trunk and sniffing loudly for another fruit.

Ten yards from an elephant. Sitting down and looking up at an elephant. He covers the world. Even in this soft light I can see the deep wrinkles and folds in his skin. They look like the craters and valleys of the moon.