`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.
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.
In sharp contrast to their Botswana beginnings, the Owenses have headed into Zambia with three trucks, an airplane, and a full complement of supplies - thanks to financial backing from the Frankfurt Zoological Society. They also have their ``first house'' in 15 years of marriage, notes Delia with a broad grin - a mud wattle hut.
But they also have something else they didn't have in that barren, awe-inspiring place - relatively close human neighbors, the Zambian villagers who live on the perimeter of the park. And that's a crucial difference. People have to be an integral part of the Owenses' work in Luangwa National Park.
A few of these people have been recruited as elephant poachers serving the international smuggling rings that deal in ivory. Some may poach antelopes for food. Many are likely to resent having a large slice of their ancestral surroundings - the park - declared off limits.
``Colonial governments and those since have simply said, `Out! You can't live there anymore,''' says Mark. You can imagine how they feel, Delia adds, when they see the occasional big-game hunter go in and bring out trophies and meat that they and their children can't legally touch.
Diana McMeekin, vice-president of the African Wildlife Foundation, insists that the hearts of local people have to be won over to any conservation effort. ``An education program invariably goes along with anything we do. You have to convince people that they're not being kept out of a park as punishment,'' she says.
The Owenses have made a start in this direction. They've gone to the villages on the fringe of the Luangwa park and invited villagers to go ``on safari'' for a day, taking them through the preserve.
``It's amazing to see the excitement of these people in seeing the animals,'' says Delia.
``That has to be the key,'' Mark affirms, a look of urgency creasing his rugged face. ``People around the parks have to see them as a source of reward.''
A pragmatist, Mark is also not opposed to allowing limited culling of herding wild animals as a food resource for local people. They have to see the animals as of direct value to them, he reasserts. ``The chiefs and the headmen will take care of the poachers once they realize it's their resource that's being destroyed.''
The Owenses believe that misdirected foreign aid sometimes works against Africans' recognition of the value of wildlife. They say it was the expansion of an aid-subsidized cattle industry in Botswana that led to the kill-off of many thousands of wildebeests there. Their resulting protest was probably the reason Botswana expelled them in 1985.
The Owenses have since mended their relations with Botswana and been allowed to revisit the Kalahari.
Frequently, badly directed aid has been a factor in Africa's environmental problems, says Ms. McMeekin, who lived in Botswana for a number of years.
Too often with aid projects, she continues, ``no one has backed off and asked, `Is this really good for the country?'''
The World Bank, for one, is starting to do that. Fran,cois Falloux heads a unit charged with assessing the environmental impact of aid proposals in Africa. ``A special type of tourism, ecological tourism,'' is one way wildlife might be utilized as an economic resource for many African nations, he notes.
That, in fact, is what Mark Owens has in mind for Luangwa park - a kind of unintrusive tourism, ``walking safaris,'' he calls it, that would put visitors in close contact with animals, but only to observe and perhaps photograph.