This is the hour of long shadows in the Luangwa Valley. It is the time when animals come warily to the river to drink. Chattering hornbills sail between thorn trees, looking for shelter. When the orange sun drops like a brick behind the clouds on the escarpment, the damp August air turns as cold as January. You can almost see your breath. Sounds carry far on nights like this. It is a good time to call lions.
EEEEEAAAAAghhh! Whuh, whuh, whuh.
Mark and Delia Owens huddle behind a sheet of flimsy shade cloth at the edge of a clearing in the bush. They are blasting a tape of lion roars through portable speakers. The two American biologists hope the noise will attract a real pride so they can tranquilize a lion with a darting rifle and collar it with a radio transmitter. But there is a problem with the lions around here.
"I'd feel bad if something happened and I hadn't said this," Mark whispers to a visitor in the tiny blind. "These lions have been shot at before, by poachers, which makes them jumpy. If you make a noise after I dart one, we could have the lion in the blind with us. If that happens I'll probably try to shoot it with my pistol, so everybody get behind me." He pauses, then chuckles. "After that, it's every man for himself."
It is almost comforting to know that Mark is an excellent shot. It is less comforting to learn that in the 16 years since they first came to Africa, neither Mark nor Delia has ever shot an animal in self-defense, even when they have been charged by their research subjects.
After all, the Owenses are here to save animals, not to shoot them.
Mark is 6'2", lean and powerfully built, with a sandy blond beard and dark blue eyes. The sun-creased skin around those eyes offers the only clue to his age, which is 46. Delia is a 5'4" featherweight with chestnut hair and a Georgia drawl. She is 41 but looks 10 years younger. The Owenses may be proof that the key to youth is unlimited fresh air and a diet of beans and peanut butter. Or maybe adrenaline keeps them young. Mark and Delia live so far out on the edge that the media may need to invent a new personality category for them: call it Type Double A.
The Owenses are the authors of a 1984 best-seller called Cry of the Kalahari, a memoir of their seven-year struggle to survive in the Botswana desert while they studied hyenas and lions. It is also the story of how two idealistic scientists turned into conservation activists as they fought to protect their adopted home.
Now the Owenses have a new home in another remote outpost of Africa: Zambia's North Luangwa National Park. Mark and Delia are here to create a game park out of 2,400 square miles of raw wilderness, to kick out the poachers who plunder the place and to revive the region's economy with a dose of Yankee capitalism. Once in a while they even practice biology.
"Try the hyenas-in-a-feeding-frenzy tape, Delia," Mark suggests. Lions can rarely resist the chance to horn in on a feeding frenzy. Delia changes cassettes and cranks up the volume.