I thought Avatar was an incredibly silly movie. Why weren’t any of the blue people fat? And I don’t care how imperialistic, amoral and greedy humans are, when you get right down to it, I’m not going to root against my species. There are more serious criticisms: what makes James Cameron think he can rip-off Dances with Wolves whilst being hailed as a creative genius? More thematically, why do white guys consider it some sort of sacred duty to go native and become better natives than the natives so they can organize the natives to oppose the non-natives? It’s a question that sprang to mind whilst reading The New Yorker cover story “The Hunted.” Simply substitute the words “so they can save African wildlife” and there you have it: the twisted tale of Mark and Delia Owens, wildlife crusaders and accomplices to murder.
Jeffrey Goldberg’s long-form article [eventually and repetitively] connects the dots between in-country conservationist Mark Owens, his increasing fanaticism for saving African wildlife, and escalating levels of anti-poacher violence. The author starts by shopping at Foreshadowing R Us, quoting from Owen’s early tome “Eye of the Elephant.”
Now we understand why we have not seen a single living elephant, or a sign of one, in the eight days since we entered the park. We are standing in the midst of a killing field . . . Although we have not yet run into poachers, it must be only a matter of time until we do. There will be no ignoring them, running from them, pretending they do not exist. If we stay here to work, we will have to do something about them.
I don’t know about you, but if I was an unarmed white guy encountering poachers in the middle of the Zambian veldt, I would, indeed, run. As the New Yorker writer rightly surmises, Owens’ book clearly signals that he has the same “Never surrender!” philosophy that made the IRA so vexing to the British Army. With hindsight, it’s easy to see that Owners’ idea of “conservation” didn’t extend to humans.
But first we have to watch the Owens’ initial naivete take a drubbing. Goldberg is big on turning points (they make for great movie scenes). He chronicles an incident where Mark Owens drops a football emblazoned with “Play Soccer, Don’t Poach Elephants!” from his airplane: a self-styled flying god delivering a message of peace for a village of grateful savages. Delia Owens is shocked—SHOCKED!—when these self-same villagers serve as meat carriers for poachers.
OK, so, guns.
The main impediment the Owenses faced was the inertia of the scouts assigned to protect the park. The scouts were nominally under the control of Zambia’s park service, but they were paid, at best, irregularly, and were in only intermittent communication with their superiors. The poachers well well armed, and the scouts intimidated . . . The realization came to Mark Owens that he should help lead the scouts himself.
The transition from realization to implementation took less time than you could say jambo bwana, Owens reached into his sponsors’ pockets and “supplanted” the scout salaries. And trained them. And clothed them. And, of course, armed them. (With what weapons we don’t know, but they weren’t shooting flowers.) Despite their increasingly fantastic denials, the Owenses had created their own private anti-poacher army. Fighting their own private war.
Entranced by Mark Owens’ hubris and the dramatic arc of the story, Goldberg glosses over the fact that events pulled the rug from under the American conservationist’s messianic mission to stop humans from shooting elephants.
The most significant advance, though, came from outside the park. In 1989, the United Nations Commission 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.
The Owneses had gone too far to declare victory and deescalate the situation. So they continued the natural progression of their anti-poacher fatwa: they launched an air war against their animal killing enemies. At a National Geographic lecture, Owens describes how he
took the door [of his airplane] off and turned the seat around and strapped him in, with a shotgun across his lap. No, this wasn’t loaded with conventional ammunition. It was loaded with a special that shot firecrackers. And they’re perfectly harmless—farmers use these things to scare marauding animals away from their crops . . . but if course poachers wouldn’t know that.
Stupid poachers! What they don’t know won’t hurt them but will scare them into obedience to Mark’s Law. Only the poachers shot back at the plane with AK-47s, allegedly. Understandably. When Mark Owens’ Chris son flew into Africa, the battle was joined. Chris, a martial arts expert, taught the guards his craft and accompanied them on patrol.
To make a long, rambling story short, an ABC TV crew flew in to Zambia share the Owenses’ valiant struggle against the forces of evil. Fronted by Meridith Viera, the crew was hot for poacher video. On cue, Mark’s son Chris shot and killed a “trespasser.” Caught on tape: the war to save Africa’s elephants takes a deadly turn!
All hell doesn’t break loose. No [non-TV] reports are filed. No investigations launched. The documentary airs on American TV, complete with assassination. Chris Owens’ identity is redacted.
By this point, the Owenses’ life in the bush of ghosts slowly begins to unravel. Questions are raised both at home, where the money lives, and in Zambia, where the government doesn’t like to see its country portrayed as a lawless land where murder victims are left to rot. (Even though that’s not a million miles off the mark.) Sensibly enough, Mark and Delia and Chris Owens get the hell out of Dodge. Their conservation program is suspended.
Author Goldberg stomps up to the moral high ground and sets the wayback machine [belatedly] to catalog the brutality and intimidation Owens brought to Zambia during their stint as self-appointed guardians of their wildlife.
Although Goldberg’s article needs some serious cut and paste rearrangement, the prose begins to crackle with malice. From dropping propaganda-laden soccer balls, Owens moved on to helicopter-borne village sweeps, trading shotgun scarifiers for lethal rifle rounds. He “inserted” paid thugs during “village sweeps,” who beat and tortured suspected poachers. Disarmament was the dish of the day.
Another scout who worked in the area, Henry Kampamba, said, “Mark Owens told us that anyone with meat or a weapon should have a beating.”
Local hunter P.J. Fouche was equally blunt in his assessment of Owenses:.
They thought they were kings . . . He made himself the law, and his law was that he cold do anything he wanted.
For the animals, of course. It was all for the animals. But, by now, we realize that the man protecting the animals from poachers was enjoying hunting humans. The smoking gun: a recruiting letter to Fouche re: the Owenses’ take-a-few-prisoner-and-beat-them anti-poaching campaign.
To date I have flown eight airborne anti-poaching operations over your area, including five in which I inserted scouts on Ambush. Two poachers have been killed and one wounded that I know of thus farm and are just getting warmed up.
By now, writer Goldberg has assassinated Mark Owens’ character. The rest of his elephant-related epic explores the craven cover-ups, prevarications, lies and failures to take responsibility for an entirely avoidable tragedy. The ABC team who shot and aired the program get a right royal kicking, as well they should.
Goldberg isn’t a bad hunter himself. Although “The Hunted” is a bit of a magical mystery tour, it ends up with a trophy: proof that Owens self-righteous fanaticism did little more than inflict a murderous rampage on the park’s population. It is a genuine journalistic coup de grace.
After they left Zambia, Mark and Delia Owens feared that Norh Lauangwa National Park would be overrun by corrupt government forces—the same men who, they say drive them out and shuttered the project—and that the elephants would again be hunted nearly to elimination. But the park did not suffer in their absence.
In fact, the author tells us that the park is thriving under its new, more benign conservation program. He highlights the successful reintroduction of the black rhino.
But I’m not so sure that paradise lost is paradise found, thanks to the removal of Mark, Delia and Chris Owen. For one thing, once a man gets a taste for killing, whether it’s animals or people who kill animals, it’s hard to just put the gun down and walk away. Once a poacher, always a poacher. For another, the U.N.’s policy on ivory is, was and will be the real hero here.
As for Mark Owens or his son Chris, both of whom the Zambian authorities would like to interview for their murder investigation, we shall probably hear no more. The elder Owenses are now in the wilds of Idaho, coping with their fall from grace. Chris is MIA.
Meanwhile, I’m sure Jeffrey Goldberg is already stalking his next prey. Here’s hoping he has a better editor as a guide. And a theme that’s more worthy of his prodigious writing talents. Something a little less Avatar meets Apocalypse Now and more The Road Warrior meets Blade Runner. If you know what I mean.