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Americans tried to save elephants, but were they really good guys?




By Ruth Maclean and Collins Chilumba Sampa

The New York Times

The hunter heard the helicopter coming. He grabbed his AK-47, he said, and jumped behind a tree. He was on an illegal elephant hunt with a group of men inside North Luangwa National Park in the southern African nation of Zambia. Smoke rose from the butchered meat that lay grilling on wooden racks.

They had been spotted.

It was the early 1990s, and men like the hunter, a tall, flinty man named Bernard Mutondo, had decimated the park’s elephant population, selling their tusks to feed the world’s appetite for ivory.

For years they had hunted in relative peace, as law enforcement in the park — 2,400 square miles of bush-studded savanna and raging rivers — was almost nonexistent. But things had become more complicated. A U.S. couple, Delia and Mark Owens, had arrived in North Luangwa to study lions. Finding elephant carcasses strewn across the park, they vowed to somehow stop the slaughter.

Today, Delia Owens is known as an evocative writer after the success of her debut novel, “Where the Crawdads Sing,” published in 2018, when she was in her late 60s, and the movie released last year. But for decades, she was a powerful figure in wildlife conservation in southern Africa.

The Owenses said they tried everything they could think of to stop the killing. Delia Owens was convinced that offering local people an alternative livelihood was key. Her husband flew over the park, looking for the smoke from poachers’ fires and dropping scouts off for patrols.

Mutondo said that when his cooking fire was spotted that night, he fired at the helicopter. Mark Owens, he said, fired back. Owens, in an emailed response, denied ever firing a gun from his helicopter.

Mutondo had slaughtered more elephants, rhinos and buffaloes than he could count. But the kill he wanted was Mark Owens.

“I really tried to bring him down,” he said.


Good guys and bad guys?


Three decades later, we drove for days over rutted roads to reach this remote corner of Zambia to see the long-term impact of the Owenses’ conservation efforts, one of many such interventions initiated by outsiders across Africa.

To many, it may seem obvious who were the good guys and who were the bad. On the one side were poachers, and on the other, anti-poaching crusaders.

The Owenses were seen back home then as heroic, giving up the comforts of America to go to a dangerous environment on an important mission. That image, which they helped create through books and speaking engagements, helped them raise money to save the elephants. And in their decade in North Luangwa, they saved many. Today, the conservation program they founded contends that the park is “the most secure in Zambia.”

But in Zambia, many saw the Owenses as rich outsiders with an agenda centered on protecting animals from people who ate their meat, who often felt they had a right to the wildlife and whose ancestors had lived with the animals for centuries. The couple’s relative wealth and status enabled them to push their agenda, which the Zambian villagers felt they had little choice but to accept.

The Owenses said they did what they could to help develop alternatives to poaching. “I know that we touched a lot of lives,” Delia Owens said.

This giant gulf of money and power is familiar to many in Africa. Many Africans see conservation as a last bastion of colonialism on the continent, a pursuit dominated by white people dedicated to keeping Africans off land that traditionally was theirs, whether by threat or persuasion.But for decades that point of view has held little sway in Western countries, where conservationists raise millions of dollars to save elephants, rhinos, lions, hippos, giraffes and cheetahs, drawing on a deep well of sympathy for certain large mammals. Poachers are often portrayed as simply evil.

A “notorious poacher” trapped

Mutondo, now in his late 50s, made no secret of his elephant hunting days when we met him sitting on a plank outside his one-room home in the village of Lushinga. In fact, he seemed proud of his hunting prowess, describing how quickly he could, in his youth, slice off an elephant’s face.

When asked if it was true that he was a reformed poacher, he issued a correction immediately.

“Notorious poacher,” he said. “Bernard Mutondo, notorious poacher.”

He found out about the title nearly 30 years ago. That was how the Owenses described him in their book “The Eye of the Elephant,” under an index titled ‘Notorious Poachers.’ Mutondo found the book while visiting Lusaka, the capital, where he had taken some ivory, hidden in sacks of charcoal, to sell.

Mutondo said he suddenly got scared, realizing the power the couple wielded.

“Every Zambian who reads this book will know we’re poachers,” he remembered thinking. “We could be shot.”

He ended up working for the Owenses. But his path to employment was, at least in his telling, a strange and violent one. His account is disputed by the Owenses.

One morning in Mwamfushi, he awoke suddenly around 4 a.m. Scouts were outside his home. He had been caught. He said he was taken to the Owenses’ camp in the park.

After a day and a night in which the couple tried to make him confess and reveal the poachers’ routes into the park, he said, Mark Owens drove him to an airstrip.

“ ‘Mutondo, today the crocodiles are going to eat you,’ ” Mutondo said Owens told him.

He said Owens instructed him to sit on a net and, bewildered, he followed orders, watching as Owens and a scout, Tom Kotela, attached it to a cable and started the helicopter. Mutondo said he found himself lifting off the ground, caught in the net.

“That’s when I knew I’d been put in a cage,” he said.

He said they flew over scrubby trees, and then along the swirling Mwaleshi River. Owens brought the helicopter low over the water, Mutondo said, then still lower. Petrified, Mutondo said he looked down and saw crocodiles and hippos. He said he was only a yard or so above their jaws.

“I just knew I was going to die,” he said.

But he was not dunked, and he did not die. He said Owens flew back to the airstrip, and after releasing him told him that he was a brave man and that he wanted them to work together. He remembered Owens saying, “That was just training I was putting you through.”

Mutondo said, “I never believed that.”

Back at the Owenses’ camp, Mutondo said, he was put to work. More than ever, he said he dreamed of killing Owens. But gradually, he came around to the idea of working for the couple, especially as his fellow hunters were being captured.

And besides, the Owenses’ largesse began to sway him.

“He gave me a lot of food — like milk, and sugar — so later, I started thinking, ‘This is a good guy,’ ” Mutondo said.

Persuading with goats, mills and promises

Delia Owens, now divorced from Mark Owens, agreed to a video interview from her home in North Carolina. She said she believed that to stop the poachers, she had to convince villagers, particularly women, that there were other ways of surviving.

“The needs of the local people have to be part of the equation,” she said.

She drove from village to village, explaining that if the poaching stopped and the elephants and other wildlife returned, tourists bringing money would come. She encouraged people to raise livestock instead of hunting, and she gave out goats, sheep and chickens to get them started.

We met one of the program’s beneficiaries, Albina Mulenga, in a cornfield. She said she had been delighted with the goats and the conservation lessons.

Thirty years later, she still remembered Delia Owens’ words.

“ ‘Children of God, please take care of these animals we’ve given you. Forget about this park,’ ” Mulenga recalled Owens saying through a translator. “ ‘The only animals you should be thinking about are these ones we have given you.’ ”

The Owenses had help spreading their message in the villages: Hammarskjöld Simwinga, a self-deprecating Zambian with a ready laugh, who won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2007 for his conservation work.

Sitting on a tree stump on his porch in the large town of Mpika, he said that for years he worked with locals, promoting conservation.

“I’ve been promising people that tourists — when they come — they will bring money. The place will change,” he said.

Simwinga and the Owenses gave out grinding mills so people could process their corn into flour, presses so they could make cooking oil out of nuts and seeds, and equipment for beekeeping.

But the message was always the same: Stop hunting wild animals.

Finishing off the animals, or saving them?

The Owenses left Zambia in 1996, not long after a film about them was broadcast showing a man alleged to be a poacher shot dead in North Luangwa. The case was the subject of a New Yorker investigation in 2011, and after the success of Owens’ novel, recently was revisited.

Authorities in Zambia said there was no record of the couple ever being wanted for questioning and no ongoing or pending prosecution against them.

But outsiders with money are still upending lives and livelihoods around North Luangwa.

Simwinga said he realized his promises that protecting wildlife would bring benefits had been empty when rich people from Lusaka started buying up land that communities had long considered theirs. The government, he said, sold it out from under them. Years of obediently protecting wildlife had come to nothing.

“We feel like we’ve betrayed the people,” Simwinga said.

Those who can hunt are still mostly rich foreigners.


Tagged in: Africa wildlife



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