Thursday, June 4, 2009

#81 - "Cry of the Kalahari" by Mark and Delia Owens

I loved this book, but I'm a little reluctant to simply recommend it to anyone and everyone because I'm not sure how much interest the general populace has in twenty-five-year-old books about wild animals in Africa. I've always had a fascination with Africa; I was planning on going through the Peace Corps after college, but when medical bureaucracy stalled the trip I went to law school instead. I still don't know if that was a good idea.

I discovered Mark and Delia Owens when I stumbled across Secrets of the Savanna (2006) in the library earlier this year, and now I'm pretty sure I'm going to end up reading everything they've written. Cry of the Kalahari (1984) by Mark and Delia Owens is the first book about the Owens's adventures and research in Africa.

Mark and Delia Owens met in a Protozoology class while doing graduate studies at the University of Georgia. By the end of the semester, they knew they wanted to go to Africa, but with more wilds of Africa disappearing every day, they didn't want to wait and go through their graduate programs. Instead, they took some time off, saved up $4900, auctioned off the rest of their belongings, got married somewhere in there, and bought one-way tickets to Johannesburg. They end up in the middle of the Kalahari desert of Botswana in southern Africa with a third-hand Land Rover. Incredibly lacking in supplies and with very little money, the pair begins studying the wildlife and habitat they see around them, including jackals, hyenas, lions, and finally the migration of wildebeest. Besides the lack of funding, Mark and Delia contend with violent storms, steamy 120 degree days, the danger of running out of food or water, and lions and hyenas wandering through camp.

The lives of the animals is told as something of a mystery. When Mark and Delia first arrive, there has been almost no study of the animals in the Kalahari, and the pair don't know what they will learn or even the subject of their study. A mysterious figure they see one night turns out to be a reclusive brown hyena, but by the end of the study, they have discovered that the brown hyenas are social creatures who raise their young communally. A confusing array of barely glimpsed animals running around in the night turns into a clear heirarchy with individuals full of personality. The same thing occurred with the study of lions. The Blue Pride lions stayed close enough to camp to follow and study only for a few months during the rainy season. Then they would disappear. It wasn't until Mark and Delia received some funding and an airplane that they were able to get a better picture of their lives.

The information about the wildlife was fascinating and dramatic: lions were killing hyenas, killing eachother; all the animals fought to survive in an incredible drought; and hunters and miners posed an omnipresent threat. However, a lot of what made me like this book so much was my admiration for Mark and Delia Owens. Their compassionate love of their study subjects, conservationist attitude, and wish to leave a small footprint and not disturb the animals all coincide with my feelings. With Africa's rather horrific history of colonization and exploitation, I'm a little wary of rich, white Americans who travel to Africa to save the animals but ignore the people. And even though they focus much more on creating a solution that includes the local people in Secrets of the Savanna, they don't ignore the inherent problems when men and animals compete for resources.

Most of all, though, I admired Mark and Delia Owens for their bravery, optimism, and tenacity. It takes some guts to give up everything you have and fly off to survive alone in the middle of the desert. More than once they had so little money, they didn't know how they could get back to the United States. But a grant always came through in the end, allowing their research to continue. When they realized a plane was necessary to study the lions during the dry season, they went after it and succeeded. It didn't matter that: they had no money for the plane or the fuel; Mark didn't have a pilot's license and had never flown a plane before; and the desert was such a dangerous place to fly that planes weren't allowed over the area. I've always wanted to go to Africa and through this book I got a glimpse of it--but without the danger, malnutrition, heat, rodents, and lions standing outside of my tent.

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