LIONS AND TIGERS AND HYENAS OH MY! Couple finds that mutual respect in dealing with animals is as important as respect in human families
`I'D much rather face a lion.'' That's how Delia Owens feels about the poachers she and her husband, Mark, will have to confront as they pursue wildlife research in Zambia's Luangwa National Park. Lions, by contrast, are old friends. During seven years of work in the remote Kalahari region of neighboring Botswana, this personable couple - he from Ohio, she a Georgian - grew to know and love dozens of lions.Skip to next paragraph
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They darted and tagged them to trace their migrations. The big cats became individuals, complete with names - Bones, whom they nursed back to health after a badly broken leg, standoffish Chary, ever-curious Sassy. Lions frequented their camp, slept a few yards from their tent, ``borrowed'' their food.
Brown hyenas provided other memorable hours in the Kalahari. These rare, elusive animals had been thought to be solitary scavengers. Mark and Delia discovered, instead, a complex, clanlike social structure among them, with hierarchies, territories, and cooperative cub care.
``We were working with naive animals - they'd had no experience with man,'' says Delia.
Not that the researchers were never afraid. It's pretty clear when a lion is scrutinizing you as a possible meal, Mark explains. They crouch and stalk. Then it's time to wave, shout - anything to show you're not some odd variety of antelope.
But the basic lesson is respect. ``The relationships we developed indicate animals and their reactions to us largely depend on how we've treated them,'' Mark observes.
The Botswana episode in the Owenses' eventful lives was capsulized in a recent National Geographic television special on PBS, ``African Odyssey.'' It was fully documented in their 1984 best-selling book, ``Cry of the Kalahari'' (Houghton-Mifflin, $7.95).
Over the past two years, a new episode has begun for them, one hinted at in the second half of the TV show. They've indeed found a new home in Luangwa National Park, a chunk of near-pristine Africa, where they can settle and observe surrounding wildlife - including buffaloes, elephants, and zebras, species not found in the arid Kalahari. There, as in Botswana, they hope a better understanding of the animals' habits and needs can lead to more effective conservation efforts.
But as the Owenses explain, the prospect of living and working in the park is hardly as idyllic as viewers who saw the special may have concluded. Their tasks in Zambia will be ``much more dangerous'' than their work in Botswana, says Mark.
Poachers may see the researchers as threats to their livelihood, so they'll probably need guards at their camp. They may even need to arm themselves at times, they concede.
In Botswana's uninhabited, desertlike outback, life was ``very, very hard,'' says tall, bearded Mark. ``We nearly died out there. We didn't have enough to eat - you couldn't buy enough to eat, let alone afford it.''
In 1974 they started out with $6,000, their life's savings, barely enough to buy air fare, a clanking old Land-Rover, a couple of tents, and basic food and fuel. Withering drought, furnacelike temperatures, wildfires, poisonous snakes, tearing brambles, and hungry insects awaited them.
``We were just so determined to go,'' Delia affirms, explaining how they surmounted odds. ``And there's no way I'd change a minute of it,'' Mark chimes in.