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In this riveting real-life adventure, Mark and Delia Owens tell the dramatic story of their last years in Africa, fighting to save elephants, villagers, and—in the end—themselves. The award-winning zoologists and pioneering conservationists describe their work in the remote and ruggedly beautiful Luangwa Valley, in northeastern Zambia. There they studied the mysteries of the elephant population’s recovery after poaching, discovering remarkable similarities between humans and elephants. A young elephant named Gift...
In this riveting real-life adventure, Mark and Delia Owens tell the dramatic story of their last years in Africa, fighting to save elephants, villagers, and—in the end—themselves. The award-winning zoologists and pioneering conservationists describe their work in the remote and ruggedly beautiful Luangwa Valley, in northeastern Zambia. There they studied the mysteries of the elephant population’s recovery after poaching, discovering remarkable similarities between humans and elephants. A young elephant named Gift provided the clue to help them crack the animals’ secret of survival. A stirring portrait of life in Africa, Secrets of the Savanna is a remarkable record of the Owenses' unique passions.
1 Delia Gift
A gift into the world for whoever will accept it.
—Richard Bach . . . there are conflicts of interest between male and female in courtship and mating.
—J . R. Krebs and N. B. Davies
Between the trees of the forest, amid the thorny undergrowth, under tangles of twisted twigs is a space that is more color than place. It is a grayness painted by drooping limbs and distant branches that blur together and fade into nothingness. It is not a shadow but a pause in the landscape, rarely noticed because our eyes touch the trees, not the emptiness on either side of them. And elephants are the color of this space. As large as they are, elephants can disappear into these secret surroundings, dissolve into the background. When poachers slaughtered the elephants of North Luangwa, the few remaining survivors slipped into the understory. They were seldom seen and almost never heard because they rarely lifted their trunks to trumpet.
When we first came to the Luangwa Valley we could barely grab a glimpse through our binoculars of the elephants’ broad, gray bottoms and thin tails before they tore into the thick brush and disappeared. As poaching decreased, a hushed peace settled over the valley, like the silence of fog folded among hills at the end of a rain. In 1991 fewer than ten elephants were shot in North Luangwa, down from a thousand killed illegally every year for a decade. It was an unexpected yet natural quiet, as if a waterfall had frozen in midsong in an ice storm, leaving the land humming with the soft sounds of life. And then, once again, the elephants began to trumpet.
Slowly, beginning with Survivor, then Long Tail, Cheers,Stumpie, and Turbo—the Camp Group—a few of the male elephants learned that they were safe near our camp, Marula-Puku, which we had built in a large grove of marula trees on a small river, the Lubonga, halfway between the massive mountains of the escarpment and the Luangwa River. The elephants came at all times of the year, not just when the marula fruits were ripe. Sometimes they turned their giant rumps to our thatched roof and scratched their thick hides on the rough grass, closing their eyes in what appeared to be the most blissful glee. Elephants can make a lot of noise while feeding, tearing down branches or pushing over medium-size trees, or they can feed as silently as kittens, munching on fruits for long moments.
One night, as Cheers fed on one side of our cottage and Long Tail on the other, both only a few yards from our bed made of reeds, they let forth with full vocalizations. Mark and I, shrouded in our mosquito net, sat up as the sounds shook us. A lion’s roar pounds the chest like deep sounds reverberating in a barrel; an elephant’s trumpet, especially after decades of being stifled, stills the heart.
In the years before they learned to trust us, they must have watched from the hillsides, remembering the fruits of the marula grove yet afraid to come near. But once they made up their minds that we were harmless, nothing we did seemed to bother them. No matter whether Mark flew the helicopter low over the treetops, or our trucks rumbled in and out, or we cooked popcorn on the open fire, the elephants came to camp. When we stepped out of our cottages, we had to remember to look carefully both ways, or we might walk into an elephant’s knee.
That nearly happened one dark evening when Mark walked quickly out of our open, thatched dining n’saka, or gazebo, where we were eating a dinner of spicy beans by candlelight. He was headed toward our bedroom cottage to retrieve the mosquito repellent and, having his mind on other things, played his flashlight beam along the ground looking for snakes. He heard a loud wooosh and felt a rush of wind. Looking up, he saw an elephant’s chin and trunk swishing wildly about against the stars. Cheers stumbled out of Mark’s path, twisting and turning to avoid the small primate. Both man and elephant backpedaled twenty yards and stood gazing at each other. Cheers finally settled down. He lifted his trunk one last time, flicking dust in the flashlight beam, and ambled to the office cottage, where he fed on marula fruits, making loud slurping sounds.
The elephants were not always so amiable. On a soft afternoon when the sun was shining through a mist of rain, I was reading in the n’saka by the river. Cheers marched briskly and silently into camp and fed on fallen marula fruits next to the bedroom cottage some thirty yards away. For a while he and I, alone in camp, went about our work, only glancing at the other now and then. The occasional heavy drop of rain fell from the trees as the mist cleared, and a faint wisp of steam rose from Cheers’s broad, warm back. Thee picture was too beautiful to keep only as a memory, so I decided to photograph him. To get a better view, I tiptoed out and stood under a fruittttt tree—not, as it turned out, a good place to stand in marula season. Suddenly Cheers turned and walked directly toward my tree. Within seconds he was only fifteen yards away. Surely he had seen me, but he came on purposefully, his massive body swaying, as though I weren’t there. I was unsure whether to stand or run, but Cheers was not the least bit indecisive; this was his tree, his fruit. Flapping his ears wildly, he mock-charged me. I ran backward about ten yards, turned, and jumped off the steep bank into the river, where Ripples the crocodile lived.
Even as the poaching decreased, the small female groups—the remnants of those once large family units—were shyer than the males. Finally, after several years, one or two females with their young calves would feed on the tall grass across the river, not far from Long Tail or Survivor. But they never ventured into camp, just wandered nearby and stared at us from the bluff above our cottages. Their backs glistening with mud, the youngsters would splash in and out of the river and romp on the beach across from the n’saka.
To keep out the African sun, we built our camp cottages with stone walls fourteen inches thick and roofed them with thatch about two feet deep. The huts stayed cave-cool even when the dry-season heat exceeded one hundred degrees. One afternoon, as I sat in the dim office cottage analyzing elephant footprint data on the solar-powered computer, a soft knock sounded on the door, and I looked up to see Patrick Mwamba, one of the first four Bemba tribesmen we had hired, years before, at the door. When he first came to us asking for work, the only tool he knew was his faithful ax; now he was our head mechanic and grader operator. Patrick is shy and gentle, with a fawnlike face.
“Dr. Delia, come see,” he said. “There is a baby elephant. She is coming to us by the river.” I switched off the computer to save solar power and rushed to the doorway, where Patrick pointed to a small elephant trotting along the river’s edge toward camp. Her tiny trunk jiggled about as she rambled along the sand. Suddenly she changed directions, galloped into the long grass, and reappeared upstream jogging in yet another direction, looking wildly around. Finally she halted and lifted her trunk, turning the end around like a periscope.
“Patrick, have you seen her mother—any other elephants?” “No, madame, she is very much alone in this place.” An orphan. The park was sprinkled with these tiny survivors, youngsters who had watched every adult in their family mowed down by poachers. From the air we had seen infants standing by their fallen mothers or wandering around in aimless search for their families. Some died right there, waiting for their mothers to rise again. Some never found the herd. By the t
FOREWORD BY ALEXANDRA FULLER VII PROLOGUE XI AUTHORS’ NOTE XXIII
MAPS NORTH LUANGWA NATIONAL PARK XXIV MPIKA DISTRICT XXV
1. GIFT 1 2. POACHER CUM MILLER 9 3. UPSIDE-DOWN ELEPHANTS 18 4. THE SONG OF THE WINTERTHORN 33 5. GRANDPA 45 6. ANY TIME FROM NOW 54 7. GULLYWHUMPER 65 8. NO SCHOOL FOR GIFT 78 9. THE WOMEN OF KATIBUNGA 81 10. MY TROOP 90 11. MOUNTAIN ELEPHANTS 97 12. THE COMMERCE OF UNDERSTANDING 103 13. THE KAKULE CLUB 112 14. TOO MUCH SUGAR 122 15. CHIPUNDU PRIDE 124 16. A PRESENT FROM GIFT 131 17. A DANGEROUS DINNER 138 18. WILDLIFE DRAMA 145 19. WHEN I CLOSE MY EYES I SEE ELEPHANTS 154 20. A DANCE WITH SURVIVOR 158 21. GRASS HUTS AND LEOPARD STUMPS 164 22. CAMP ARREST 173 23. ADRIFT 180 24. THE STONES OF MY STREAM 184
APPENDIX: THE NORTH LUANGWA CONSERVATION PROJECT 197 SUGGESTED READING 213 ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 215 INDEX 221
Posted March 8, 2011
Posted June 30, 2012
No text was provided for this review.
Posted January 17, 2013
No text was provided for this review.