8. The Dark Side of Delia Owens (author of Where the Crawdads Sing) featuring Kayse Gale




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Trigger Warnings: murder, poaching, racism, rape, child abandonment

Our Sources:

The Hunted: Did American conservationists in Africa go too far? – The New Yorker

The Dark History Behind the Year’s Bestselling Debut Novel – Slate

Deliaowens.com – About the Author

Who is Delia Owens?

According to her website, Delia is the co-author of three internationally best-selling nonfiction books about her life as a wildlife scientist. Her first novel, “where the crawdads sing” was an NYT best seller for 135 weeks total and sold more than one million copies.

Delia was born in Georgia, in 1949. She spent her childhood exploring the outdoors. Her mom taught her about hiking and not being afraid of nature. She stated on her website that since she was very young nature has been one of her best friends. She said in the sixth grade she won a writing competition and, “just knew she would be a writer.”

Delia boasts some very impressive degrees. She got her Bachelor in Science and zoology from the University of Georgia and her Ph.D. at the University of California Davis.

She would meet her husband Mark while completing her undergrad in Georgia.

As grad students, they organized an auction and sold all of their worldly possessions, purchased some camping gear and one-way tickets to Africa.

At the time Delia was 24 and Mark was 27. Before they left they searched high and low for the perfect isolated spot where wildlife was untouched by humans and had no knowledge or fear of people.

In Africa

The couple set up camp in the Kalahari desert in Botswana, where they studied wildlife for many many years. They lived a rough life out there in the desert. Especially at first. They didn’t have much funding and were really roughing it. They rationed 7 gallons of water a week per person for cooking, bathing, and drinking. They would only take sponge baths and had to resort to cooling water in pans they would put in the shade.

It took several years but they gained the trust of many groups of lions and hyenas during their stay. It was here that they would first speak out about poachers. While here they gained popularity and funding by writing about the social habits of the predators they were observing. Mark Owens witnessed poachers killing a bunch of wildebeest, and he was shooketh. It ignited a passion in him and Delia for conservation. They tried to lobby for the protection of the animals by government officials. When that didn’t work, they resorted to other tactics. It was after they ran a smear campaign against the local cattle industry that the local government made them GTFO because of money reasons. Apparently, Botswana is a huge beef exporter to Europe and the Owens were causing problems.

What next?

They returned to the US briefly, but just like a toxic ex, they weren’t over it. So they got a bunch of rich white dudes including our then vice president George HW Bush to harass Botswana in an attempt to change their minds.

They relocated to Zambia, north Luangwa national park in 1986. But they ultimately settled in Mpika a different province of Zambia where they worked mostly in conservation. By the time the 90s rolled around Mark and Delia were asked to leave Zambia and never return for fear of prosecution. They are wanted for questioning in a 1995 murder of an unidentified poacher. This particular murder was filmed and broadcast by ABC News here in the US on the show Turning Point. Cameras were there to film shots for a segment on their conservation work. To be clear, Delia herself isn’t a suspect but multiple witnesses have implicated her husband and her stepson.

Mark initially referred to the national park as the place where civilization ends. It was underdeveloped, unguarded, and mostly untouched by people. It was Delia and Mark’s wet dream. Until it wasn’t, I guess.

They weren’t there long when they came across signs of poaching in the form of hundreds of animal carcasses strewn all over. Like that scene in the Lion King? Or am I imagining that?

Mark and Delia decided they couldn’t avoid the poachers and they refused to ignore what was happening to the animals they loved. They were also not leaving the area they loved. Fuck that noise. They decided to take it upon themselves to do something about it. No matter what it was going to take.

The 80s and 90s were a terrible time to be an elephant in Africa. The demand for ivory would lead to a drastic reduction in the elephant population. In the New Yorker article the hunted, I learned that in 1979n there were 300,000 elephants in Africa. By 1989 there were closer to 150,000. In response to this many African countries authorized shoot-on-site policies in regard to poachers. Despite the fact that some countries adopted this policy, It’s very important to note that Zambia did not.

The value of ivory skyrocketed so there was a massive influx of poachers. Some of these operations were unbelievably huge and they would employ massive amounts of people. There would be truck beds full of tusks coming out of the park every day. Ivory sold for about 1,000 pounds.

Where the Owens set up camp there were minimal patrols. The game scouts that were present were overworked, underpaid, unarmed, and not at all motivated to do anything. They had little to no support from the government. The Owens’ decided they would help the locals find economic resources if they agreed to quit poaching. They would raise money in the US and help to build up the local community. They helped to build grinding mills, fish ponds, and sunflower oil presses. They worked hard to uplift the local economy in an effort to combat the poachers. If locals could support themselves, they would not have to aid the poachers. The biggest problem they faced was that the poachers were all well-armed and scary as hell.

Mark sort of viewed himself as a Batman avenger archetype. He takes it upon himself to declare himself the boss of the scouts. Delia and Mark were soon named honorary game rangers by local officials, which gave them official power over the game scouts. Delia wasn’t super stoked about becoming involved at this level but ultimately went along with it.

When ’91 rolled around there were 12 elephant deaths in the park, vs 1000 when they started intervening. Their social programs were seemingly working. They invested in local healthcare and helped provide industry etc. Despite the good things, Mark isn’t satisfied. He keeps upping the ante. He becomes obsessed. I read a story about him ambushing poachers and using a specially rigged rifle to shoot cherry bombs at poachers, to terrify them and convince them they were being bombed. It occupied enough of his time Delia became pissed. She even moved to a different camp for a while but they ultimately would reconcile.

The Incident

1994 ABC’s Turning Point reaches out about them participating in a documentary. Do you know Meredith Viera? They sent her ass all the way to Africa to interview them for this program. This episode would air on 3/30/1996. It was called the deadly game: the mark and Delia Owens story.

Meredith followed some scouts out on a patrol and they happen upon a campsite of some packers and waited to see if they could bust them. The poachers would return and the scouts shot not one, but two of them. On camera. Meredith’s voiceover tells viewers about how they leave the bodies where they lie so the animals can take care of them.

This documentary really pissed off the Zambian government because it made it look as if they didn’t care that the scouts were murdering poachers. So they launched a homicide investigation and seized control of the Owens’ operation. Like all the equipment, businesses, everything. Basically causing an economic crash for the people who depended on the Owens for their livelihood.

Mark and Delia left the country pretty quickly after they were advised to leave and not return until the investigation was resolved. It’s still ongoing. Mark and his son are still considered suspects and authorities would LOOOVE to talk with all three of them.

To listen to the full deep dive on Delia Owens, check out our episode of Tell Me More: A deep dive on… on Apple or Spotify. Don’t forget to subscribe so you know exactly when each episode is released!


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