Friday, December 5, 2008

#23 - "Secrets of the Savanna" by Mark & Delia Owens

I often live vicariously through a friend of mine because I (not-so-secretly) yearn for a life like hers. She is a biologist who married a fellow biologist, and their life is a constant stream of exploring new places and cultures as they research wildlife around the world. One year they are staked out in Maine studying birds, and the next they are spending four months in the wilds of Kyrgyzstan as they study snow leopards. Mark & Delia Owens, the co-authors of Secrets of the Savanna (2006) are like an extreme version of these friends.

Secrets of the Savanna is apparently the third book by Mark & Delia Owens. Cry of the Kalahari and The Eye of the Elephant detail some of their earlier adventures in Africa while Secrets of the Savanna focuses primarily on the later years the couple spent in the North Luangwa National Park in Zambia, researching and protecting the elephants and other animals within the park. I just saw this book set out at the library and the title and picture captured my attention. I'm a sucker for books on Africa.

The prologue states that in 1971, as young college students, Mark and Delia Owens took temporary leave from their graduate programs in order to make some money to fund research in Africa. In 1974 they married, auctioned off all their belongings, bought one-way tickets, and flew to Johannesburg, South Africa. They eventually found themselves in the Kalahari, where they spent seven years of their lives. When forced to move on, they discovered the Luangwa National Park in Zambia where they set up the North Luangwa Conservation Project and stayed for over ten years.

When Mark & Delia Owens arrive in Zambia, the great elephants that used to live there had been decimated, 93% of them having been killed by illegal poachers looking to make money through ivory and meat. There were only 1,300 elephants left, 84% of whom were female and 16% male. Their unique and complex family social systems had been completely disrupted and in another 5-10 years, they would most likely have been completely wiped out. The government had pretty much given up on the park, and seven rangers, who had not been paid in months, were in charge of protecting the entire area. It was impossible to even use eco-tourism at the beginning to help out the park because of the huge gangs of illegal poachers and the lack of animals. The authors, well-equipped (mainly by donations, I think) with a plane, helicopter, and other equipment were able to help get more rangers and more equipment dedicated to protecting the park, research the effect of the poachers on the elephants, and encourage the people living around the park to protect their wildlife through conservation education and employment opportunities. In some ways, this book reads like a fantastic adventure novel. Mark flies around in a helicopter, trying to locate and dissuade poachers. Lions once actually came into Mark and Delia's tent. And date night for Mark and Delia includes flying a helicopter to a rocky outcropping in the middle of a river, in the middle of a series of waterfalls, for dinner and camping.

I should just say that I loved this book, but more because of the subject matter than anything else. I have always had a kind of love affair with Africa. A grand continent where life started and huge herds of exotic animals still roam the lands. It's beautiful, and I want more than anything to travel there someday. Sometimes I wonder if I could just drop everything and head over to Africa. But as a romantic view as I have of Africa and its wildlife, I'm still aware of the devastating problems in the continent, and how many of these problems stem from westerners continually exploiting the people and natural resources. I approved of the way Mark and Delia appreciated the people and culture around them and did more more than fly in and only protect the animals. Their concerted efforts to not only research the flora and fauan in the park, but also protect the animals from poaching, increase healthcare, education and create sustainable economies for the areas surrounding the park is a lot to take on. And these tasks were made even more difficult by corrupt individuals in the government who were trying to shut them down. As much as I sometimes wanted to be in their position, I really don't think I would have been able to deal with the pressure, danger, and slow progress that followed them throughout their time in Africa.

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