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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.

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  1. The situation is familiar. George Adamson was killed by poachers. Joy Adamson and Dian Fossey were murdered in murky circumstances. It is difficult to stop hungry people from destroying their own habitat without making enemies.

  2. But not impossible.

    It seems that Owens went WAY beyond the boundaries of self-defense. And WELL beyond the normal limits of “conservation.” In some ways, I’m surprised they weren’t assassinated.

    Even if you love wildlife more than you love your fellow humans, their preservation does not justify murder.

    The ivory ban did more for protecting elephants in two months than the Owenses did in several decades.

    What does that tell you?

  3. Although this Owens guy is a total nutbag, it's not all that easy to feel sad for poachers, considering they're not killing elephants to hand out money to the poor or meat to the hungry. They're motivated by greed, the same as any other criminal.

    What Owens did is bordering on insanity. His own private war. Not a metaphorical one, but a real one with shooting.

  4. Hi Robert:

    I don’t know why I can’t turn away from this and accept that many people believe what they read without educating themselves directly – but I can’t. Let me try to put your view into a larger context.

    Have you read Mark and Delia’s books? Have you spoken to anyone who knows them and their work personally? I’m pretty sure you have not. I know that what they write and what they did is true – because I was there every step of the way. If you knew them – I believe you would step back from this sensationalized account of their work and recognize it for what it is…misquotes, misstatements, an agenda filled character assassination of two people who do not deserve such all designed to sell magazines in a dwindling market.

    You have picked up on the attack just as intended – taken the bait. The author wanted sensationalism as did his editor. ABC wanted sensationalism. Readers seem to want sensationalism.

    Here’s sensation: Mark and Delia Owens improved the lives of more than 35,000 rural African people (and the number is growing daily) who now have food assurance (their term). Where these people in extremely remote areas were malnourished and destroying the habitat upon which their very lives depended through ineffective slash and burn agriculture and poaching of an ever shrinking wildlife population – they now have SUSATINABLE agriculture based on environmentally sound practices. Malnutrition is gone from the areas that the Owenses’ project has reached. These rural people have small businesses that do not need on going outside support…businesses that meet the needs to the local people – beekeeping, fish farming, chicken and rabbit farming (as an alternative sustainable source or protein), sunflower oil pressing (there was no source of cooking oil before Mark and Delia introduced sunflower cultivation and oil pressing – unless you cooperated with commerical poachers who rewarded your monthly long, grueling, highly dangerous, illegal efforts with 2 lbs of meet and a gallon of cooking oil), carpentry shops, sewing coops, and so very much more. They have greatly improved education and health programs. Tourism is underway where before the Owenses began their village work – it was a life threatening experience to visit this area as gangs of commercial poachers from outside the area ruled like the drug lords of Central and South America. All of this success was established and is growing steadily because of Mark and Delia.

    In Zambia – as in much of Africa – when a man dies (and so many have due to AIDS), his family comes and takes every single possession of his wife and his children – leaving them with literally the clothes on their back and nothing more. If the wife does not have a strong natal family to take her in – she and her vulnerable children have no where to turn. Mark and Delia’s work supports women who previously had NO voice, none. They were chattel. The Owenses’ ongoing work in Zambia is 68% devoted to giving women the opportunity to be successful – and thereby their children. Women now have financial security, food assurance and their children go to school and have improved quality of life.

    Delia and Mark’s enemies want you to believe that they were awful people. I know if you met them – you would like them immensely. They are beyond good. They are amazing. You would have run away from the challenge – by your own admission. But – they stayed. They turned chaos into order with the help of the village Headmen – the Chiefs and their people. Contrary to negative view that you are pushing so hard – Mark and Delia did good. So very much good. Don’t ask arrogant first worlders – ask the villagers if they are glad Mark and Delia Owens came to their area? I know the answer. I have files and files of letters from men, women and children would owe their quality of life to Delia and Mark.

    And guess what? On top of these truly astounding accomplishments on behalf of the people (in a land where any forward movement is often just about impossible) – Delia and Mark saved the wildlife too. How wonderful is that?

    Please stop for a moment and see the biggest picture of all: some people are just good, hard working, smart, dedicated. We would all be lucky if there were more people like Mark and Delia Owens.

    • Excellent comment. My wife and I have traveled and researched much of southern Africa. We’ve spent time in Deception Valley in the CKGR. We’ve read the Owens’ books. The Owens’ conservation work in Botswana and Zambia was fantastic. Naturally, they created problems when they encountered the extremely corrupt tribal governments in Botswana and Zambia. Nothing new there. Mark and Delia are heroes to the conservation / preservation movement.

  5. Americans are for death penalty and shooting criminals but they have a problem with killing criminals who destroy the future economy and sustainability of a country?


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