Sunday, July 5, 2009

#89 - "The Eye of the Elephant" by Delia and Mark Owens

When Delia and Mark Owens left their graduate studies at the University of Georgia and headed to Africa to study the ever-dwindling wildlife, they ended up staying over twenty years, eventually producing three memoirs on their lives and struggles in the bush. I had stumbled upon Secrets of the Savanna (2006), their latest book, at the library and have finally gotten around to reading the other two. The three books make up a trilogy of their experiences in Africa, and I kind of wish I had been able to read them in order, starting with Cry of the Kalahari (1984), but I still enjoyed them. The Eye of the Elephant (1992) is the second book in the series and details how and why Mark and Delia Owens moved their studies from the deserts of Botswana to the often flooded North Luangwa National Park in Zambia.

It took me a little longer to get into The Eye of the Elephant, which might have had something to do with already knowing a lot of the story from a time when they knew more about the animals and people surrounding them. Although elephants are the focus of their lives, Mark and Delia are so busy fighting poachers and finding dead elephants that they actually learn very little about them. But it's still a fascinating story. Mark and Delia Owens live their lives in the wilderness of Africa, seeing things that most Americans will never get to see and fighting a dangerous and often hopeless battle against poaching and corruption.

One aspect that I found particularly satisfying for me was the Owens' discussion of the drastic impact the United Nations Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) had on poaching in the park. In early 1989, CITES voted to list the African elephant as an endangered species and prohibited the sale of all elephant parts for two years. The price of ivory dropped from $136/pound to $1.36/pound. North Luangwa recorded only 12 dead elephants in 1990, down from the previous 1000 per year. The numbers are staggering and meaningful. During law school I was assigned to write an article on developments in International Environmental Law for the year, and I focused a lot on the CITES meetings and discussions. However, I couldn't tell from my perspective that the endless conferences, discussions, and listing of animals were actually making a difference, and it all seemed pretty pointless to me. It's nice to know that I was wrong.

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