A naughty, naughty couple who had been working seven years on the brown hyena and the lions of Botswana had the gall to protest the erection of wire fences that cut off migration routes of the wildebeests. Thousands of those hoofed animals -- maybe a million or more -- died, blocked from their ancient routes to water holes.
As students of wildlife, respectable enough to be financed by the National Geographic Society and the New York Zoological Society, Mark and Delia Owens thought they had the duty to protest the decimation of wildlife to the government of Botswana. The animals are, after all, a glory of that inland African nation north of South Africa. When the government proved unresponsive the Owenses returned to America and wrote a book -- "Cry of the Kalahari," now being issued in soft-cover -- and this apparently offended officials in Botswana. (A National Geographic special on the Owenses airs tonight at 8 on Channels 26 and 32.)
"The fences were to keep the wildebeests off land being grazed by cattle, for fear the wild animals would give them hoof-and-mouth disease," Mark Owens said this week during a Washington visit. Various experts said there was no threat of that disease from the wildebeests, but such testimony made no difference and the fences were set up with government encouragement.
Well, this kind of attitude was not received favorably in Botswana, and when the Owenses returned in 1985 with a camera crew to make the National Geographic program, they had hardly got started when they were summoned by government authorities and given three hours to leave the country.
They were devastated, having hoped and expected to spend many more years there. Already they had broken new ground, discovering the brown hyena has communal dens. It had always been supposed those animals were solitary except in breeding season.
They had no choice but to obey the eviction order, and the PBS special was obliged to deal less with the Owenses' work in Botswana than with their search for a new African site for their research.
"No reason was given for booting us out," Owens said, "and now they have raised the ban and said we could return."
Still, a government that once kicks you out without time to gather your stuff in the field may not be all that reliable in the future, so the Owenses will begin new work at the end of this month not in Botswana but 1,000 miles to the north in Zambia, at the Luangwa nature preserve.
"It took a year to get the proper permits to work there," Delia Owens said, "but now we're all set. It's a paradise sort of place. But there's a river full of hippos, very different from the desert country."
"In the desert we used to just wear shorts," Mark said, "and I remember how recklessly we just flopped about in the river at our new place." Reckless indeed because of some waterborne diseases.
"You both seem to be in pretty good shape," their visitor suggested.
"So far," Mark said. "I haven't picked up anything in Africa except a little worm who bored in near my navel. Think he's in the muscle tissue. We're just leaving him alone."
Wiry in build, blue-eyed and sandy-haired (Mark) and brunet (Delia) the couple look as if they might be selling something wholesome in a commercial. They met while doing graduate work at the University of California at Davis.
"We haven't got kids," Mark said. "There was no way we could have had a child in the Kalahari, where the two of us were totally isolated, and only drove 100 miles to a town for supplies once a month. When we left, another couple took over our hut to keep an eye on it, just for a while. They had a baby and sewed him up in a hammock every night to keep the rock python from eating him."
Pythons have to eat, of course -- they are marvelous snakes, among the glories of the scaly kingdom -- but not your baby. The Owenses draw lines in their general succoring of wildlife.
"For me it all started when I was a child in Thomasville, Georgia," Delia said. "My father was not the least interested, but my mother loved the outdoor life and we were forever going out to the country. And they gave me a strawberry-roan mare that I really loved. I tried once to teach it to pull a cart by tying a huge white plastic bag back of its tail. The horse was having none of that."
It was at this point that Delia saw enlightenment and learned that animals have distinct ways of behaving, not all of them as flamboyant as Strawberry's when the bag was tied on.
"And for me," said Mark, "it began when I was 5. My father was a farmer in northwestern Ohio. He always took me in the field with him. I drove a tractor when I was 5. If we planted wheat, or harvested it, I couldn't help noticing afterwards how the nests were torn up and the little birds and rabbits cut to pieces. That bothered me terribly, because I was too young to have been inculcated in the general view that animals are to be used, and a few birds and rabbits don't make any difference.
"But there were marvelous times, too. In the fields in hot weather, sometimes there would be sudden storms. My father would strip off all his clothes and I would, too, and we'd run into the woods. Like kids with a lawn sprinkler."
Expelled from Botswana, the couple took their little van and little plane to the north. They were heartened when the local inhabitants welcomed them at one place that is shown on the map to be a great game reserve.
"But there weren't any animals at all," said Mark. "Everywhere there were racks for drying meat, right in the preserve itself. Poachers were everywhere. We kept going north, until finally we found Luangwa, which is untouched country. Animals are everywhere in the 40-by-60-mile spread."
"And the thing is, this park, too, would have been destroyed," said Delia.
Not because the government isn't interested, but because there is not enough money and not enough trained staff to police and protect it, or even to make an accurate survey of its wildlife.
"We are on a new approach, different from our isolation in Botswana," Mark said. "It's more clear by the day that the only way these parks in Africa are going to be saved is for the local people to see that they personally profit from them.
"They have seen fancy lodges built, and planes come and go, but they get nothing of the tourist revenue. In our new place the land is poor, it's hard to make a living from farming. About all they can live on is the natural wildlife, and they're forbidden to hunt it. What would you think if you lived like that and saw foreign women in leopard-skin hats coming in? You would never have two bucks to buy a beer in the expensive tourist places -- you'd just see the rich come and go, but you'd never be a dime better off.
"What we're doing is working with the regional Zambian government. Controlled tourism, with some of the profit going directly back to people in the neighborhood. A small clinic, for instance, a few jobs in the hotel or lodge, a market for your home-raised vegetables, things like that. You would see then that you were better off because of the animal reserve, and would be in favor of it. It's complicated, sure. And you can guess how much we'd like the land to be kept untouched forever, with the animals running free. But that's not a choice.
"Either the wildlife is managed, for tourists in controlled numbers, and a certain number of the animals used for food, or else the whole park will eventually be wrecked by poachers, as in so many other places.
"You know studies that show wildlife carefully managed can produce more protein for the people than ordinary agriculture. Without killing off all the animals, too. Take the hippos, they multiplied too far in Luangwa, and as often happens when animals are too thick, they got a plague of anthrax and two-thirds of them died. It would be better if a few of them were hunted, with foreigners paying costly license fees, and some of that new money going not only to keep the hippos at a reasonable level, but also going into the pockets of the indigenous Africans. It's about the only way I can see to meet the reasonable demand of the local people for food, while not destroying the natural population of irreplaceable wild animals."
So the Owenses will give it a go, in a program they hope will develop over the years at Luangwa. Not that Mark is really going to like it when a hippo is shot. He still hasn't quite got over the slaughtered bunny rabbits in his father's wheat fields.