By Kevin Davis
Africa. The name conjures up visions of vast desert plains of roaming ungulates, a herd of elephants breaking the endless horizon and the powerful roar of a lion. This is what drew Delia and Mark Owens, both wildlife biologists, to one of the remotest desert regions in Africa, the Kalahari.
Idaho was the place Delia and Mark decided to call home, after spending the last 24 years of their lives working to conserve the last of the great animals of the African plains. Understandably, they wanted to live in a place where they could be surrounded by wildlife. Recently I had the pleasure of talking to Delia about their endeavors in Africa and Idaho.
I have hope that the couple's legacy will continue through their contributions to preserving the wildlife that makes North Idaho so unique.
Mark and Delia had met in college and realized they shared a common dream of studying wildlife in Africa. So, in 1974, with $6,000 to their names they left for the Kalahari Desert.
Q. When you left the U.S., why did you choose the Kalahari Desert in Africa?
We wanted to go somewhere to study the natural behavior of carnivores -- a place they had not been studied before or interfered with by man. We were looking for a totally wild population of lions. The Kalahari is an area the size of Ireland, and we were the only two people there. We lived there for seven years.
Q. Elaborate on some of your memorable experiences in the Kalahari.
Oh man, I guess the most memorable one would have to be when we had driven into the desert in our truck. We finished our work late at night. We put our sleeping bags out on the ground and went to sleep. Mark woke up and saw a pride of lions walking toward us. One lioness was very close and approaching us. He woke me up to find the lioness at the foot of our sleeping bag. As I looked around I realized we were surrounded by nine lions, and they were all asleep except the one.
After studying the lions there for seven years, the Owenses were ready for a change. They looked north to the wetter region of North Luangwa National Park, a remote part of south central Africa with no roads and a serious problem with poachers. Within 10 years, the Owenses helped reduce poaching there by 95 percent.
Q. It must have been a huge effort to turn entire communities away from poaching. Were they accepting of this?
Our philosophy is that we have to try to conserve our natural resources because we are all dependent on them. But we shouldn't have to do it at the expense of local people. That is true here, and it is true in Africa. The people who were poaching elephants in the Luangwa valley were not just killing for meat for their family. They were illegally poaching elephants inside the park. So we went around to these villages and said, if you will stop poaching we will help you set up a little industry, a fish farm, grow sunflowers to make cooking oil. We did this for 14 different villages. It's not that they were resistant of the idea; they just didn't understand it at first. ... We talked to them, in discussions around their beer pot, about how it could be different. We explained to them how the elephants were giving out. They were shooting 1,000 elephants a year. The population had been reduced from 20,000 to 5,000. They had five more years until there were no more elephants. Then what?
Q. Did they realize their impact?
They did. When their grandfathers were hunting, they could walk right outside their village and shoot a buffalo. By the time we got there in the mid-1980s, a man would have to walk 60 miles because they were so rare.
Q. How did the establishment of the Owens Foundation for Wildlife Conservation arise?
After we did our work in the Kalahari, we were always having to get grants. After our first book came out -- it was very successful -- we got a bit of name recognition. So we realized it was easier to raise funds just using our name. So we set up our own foundation, and that way people could donate money to the foundation directly and it would be tax-deductible.
Q. How does the Owens Foundation support the Selkirk Grizzly Bear Recovery Project?
After our work in the Luangwa valley, we wanted to come back to the states and find a place where we could have wildlife around us. So we bought a place in North Idaho, and it was indeed remote. We have moose and bears and deer right on our place. Greg Johnson, the conservation officer in Bonners Ferry, found out that we were in the area. He approached us to help with the Selkirk project, and we agreed. I want to make it perfectly clear that this is an Idaho Department of Fish & Game project, and our role is simply to help them financially. Especially we are interested in helping them with the educational program. We think it is a great idea to go around to the schools. Johnson teaches the children, clubs and community about grizzly bears.
Q. What do you estimate the grizzly population to be in the Selkirks?
Wayne Wakkinen, the regional wildlife biologist, estimates them to be from 15 to 20, maybe as many as 30.
Q. What do you see as the main threat to grizzlies in the Selkirks?
Human development. As the population grows there is going to be less habitat for grizzly bears. The biggest threat to them is they don't have enough spring and summer range. They have to come down in the spring to feed on the bottomlands. I'm not suggesting that people should have to give up their land for grizzly bears. There should be enough room for people and bears. It's just a matter of trying to divide the habitat. ... I think people can live closer to wild animals than they think.
Q. Do you recognize common ground with your work in Africa?
Yes, there are a lot of similarities really. We have to involve the local people. I think the IDF&G is doing a very good job with that. They go out with this educational program and talk to people about grizzly bears. They work with the Forest Service on conservation issues. We can still cut timber, but we can still have grizzly bears.
Q. What is the future of the Owens Foundation?
To continue to raise money for projects all over the world. Our main emphasis is to support projects that involve saving wildlife but not at the expense of local people.