• picture
  • picture
  • picture
  • picture
Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Fighting the Elephant Wars

Air Date: Week of

Steve talks with zoologists Delia and Mark Owens about elephants, economics and their efforts to prevent poaching in Zambia's North Luanaga reserve. The Owens are authors of the new book The Eye of the Elephant.


CURWOOD: One of the most endangered animals on the planet is the African elephant. Over the last thirty years so many have been killed for their hides, their meat and especially their ivory tusks, that fewer than 15 percent are left. Several years ago zoologists Mark and Delia Owens went to Zambia to study lions, but they quickly found themselves embroiled in a major battle to save the gentle giants.

DELIA OWENS: Elephants are very sensitive animals, they have a very strong family group. The females will stay in the group in which they're born, so you have grandmothers, mothers, daughters, aunts, all in a group. The matriarch will be 60 years old. So they've known each other, they know each other for years and years, they communicate, they do a lot of touching, they lean against each other when they're sleeping -- there's a lot of feeling among the group. Unlike other animals, when they're being shot, the elephants will actually run towards the individual that has been shot and try to lift it up. And so therefore instead of one being shot, sometimes the whole group is shot, because they'll actually stay around trying to aid the ones that are wounded. And this has had a tremendous impact on their social behavior. In North Luanga now, we almost never see normal family groups; they've been broken up -- none of the matriarchs are left, basically we have a bunch of teenagers running around trying to survive.

CURWOOD: In 1990 an international ban on the trade in ivory was adopted by much of the world, through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, better known by its acronym, CITES. The ban has helped cut elephant poaching substantially. In their new book, The Eye of the Elephant, Delia and Mark Owens chronicle their struggles to save elephants in Zambia's North Luanga reserve, before the CITES ban. They stopped by recently to talk about that fight, and their efforts to create other sources of income for people who had little opportunity to make money, except through poaching.

MARK OWENS: Poaching was the number one economy in the whole district, in an area the size of Maine. And basically what we've tried to do is supplant an illicit economy based on poaching with a legal economy based on microindustries that we've helped the people start in villages.

CURWOOD: How is that working, and where did you get the money for it?

DELIA OWENS: Well, the way to tell you how it's working is, when we started this project one thousand elephants were being shot a year, and in 1992 only two elephants have been shot. So it has been very successful but it was not easy. What happened was, at first the villagers were suspicious. A few would join us, but then some of them would work making furniture during the week and then on the weekends they'd still go poaching. So it took a long time, and you see the other problem was that the game scouts who were supposed to be protecting the park were corrupt -- they were poaching as well. The game warden was one of the biggest poachers. We had no one we could turn to for assistance. And so we had to just keep trying, and eventually more people joined us, but the more successful we became, the angrier the large operators became. It's like a drug cartel -- you have these men at the top that are organizing the whole thing. They became very angry. So they actually sent an assassination team in to kill us.

CURWOOD: And what happened?

MARK OWENS: They actually came to a high bank behind our camp, about 250 yards from our camp, and they were all armed with AK-47 assault rifles. And informants had tipped us off that they were coming in about 24 hours earlier, and we only had three guns -- one rifle, a shotgun and a pistol, all sporting guns. And we dressed our staff up, some of our Bemba tribesmen who were working for us, we dressed them in khakis and gave them sticks and gave them the few guns we had, and we all sort of paraded around camp looking very officious and military, and --

CURWOOD: You scared 'em off, huh?

MARK OWENS: Well, they came, they actually crawled through the grass to within sixty yards and apparently even took sight on me as I walked to our workshop and, but then they saw these other guys walking around with guns and they talked it over and decided it was too risky for them at that point, so they backed away. But they were regularly shooting at the airplane. I would fly anti-poaching missions at night, looking for these huge meat-drying fires that would be loaded with up to four or five elephants, and they would open fire on the airplane with military weapons. You could see the tracers flicking up and so forth. So it was quite a, it turned into quite a bush war.

CURWOOD: What about all of this has discouraged you the most? When did you wake up in the morning and look in the mirror -- I guess you don't have a mirror there (laughter) -- but when did you saw, I don't know if I can do this any more?

MARK OWENS: Well, I think the most discouraging point came when one group in particular that we called "camp group" were coming around and coming actually into camp and feeding on the marulla fruits at our bedroom cottage and so forth. And one morning we got up and we were wandering down the footpath through our camp toward the kitchen area, and we were going to fix breakfast, and Delia said, look, Mark, there's Survivor. We stood there just in the warm morning light watching this elephant just across the river from camp feeding, and all of a sudden a fusillade of gunfire broke out , and there were military weapons rattling everywhere around, and they were shooting at Survivor, and his group, the rest of his group. And we grabbed the guns and went and grabbed the guys that work for us -- or actually, they just charged across the river without any firearms -- and I was trying to cover them with my gun and two other guys with the other two guns, and they could have been cut down by these poachers, but . . . Anyway, Survivor disappeared and we thought he'd either been killed or wounded or would die of his wounds, and we couldn't find the poachers but eventually found some elephants they'd killed and chopped the tusks from. And I went up in the airplane that late afternoon, and I found the poachers, where they were camped for the night along a river not too far from our camp. And I flew to Mpeka, which is the nearest town from us, and I got some game scouts and brought them out and showed them the camp from the air, and they refused to go after them. They said, aw, we've been on patrol recently, we don't have to go on patrol. And that was it for me. I just thought, what in the world are we doing here, and it was at that point, actually, that I decided, to hell with this, and I yanked the door off the plane, turned the seat around and put one of my best workers in the seat with a shotgun loaded not with buckshot but with a special shotgun shell that projects a cherry bomb, a firecracker, to a hundred yards, which then goes off with a tremendous explosion and a lot of light and flash but no shrapnel. And then I took off that night and flew at night, and flew down a mountain canyon near this poacher's camp and stayed low behind the trees, because I knew they'd shoot at me. And then popped up over their camp at the last second and just turned a tight spiral around their camp, and the first cherry bomb that Kasekola shot went right into their campfire and it exploded, it shot burning embers all over their camp and set their tents on fire, so it was a fairly gratifying feeling for me. And then for weeks after that I kept flying these sorties against poachers at night, and eventually we cleared them out of the valley. And then within a couple of months after that the CITES ivory moratorium was enacted, and it just helped us tremendously, because suddenly it just undercut the poachers' incentive for coming in against us.

DELIA OWENS: After CITES banned the international trade of ivory, elephant poaching in East Africa dropped by 80 percent. In our area, it has dropped by even more than that. Besides the CITES ban on ivory, the other thing that really helped us was that last year, in 1991, the Zambian people decided that they wanted a free, democratic government, and the majority of people came out and insisted on having a free election, which they had never had, they only had a one-party state. And they elected Fred Toluba, their new president, and he enacted a very strong new law against poaching. And also Zambia joined the ban, and now we have the support of the government. Now we have a new game warden who's not corrupt, we have a new Chief of Police who's not a poacher. And so it's just like a different place now.

CURWOOD: I know you're biologists, zoologists -- you're not economists -- but briefly, what's the economic model, and give me some numbers if you can, for this new economy that you're trying to set up.

MARK OWENS: Basically our approach has been the carrot and the stick. We make it very expensive for poachers to come into the wilderness area to poach, and at the same time relatively more profitable to stay out of there. A man would make ten dollars for shooting an elephant, for example. Well, it doesn't take much of an industry to replace that.

DELIA OWENS: So we started this program of giving alternatives to the poachers. We would train, we'd say, okay, we'll take anyone who's interested and we'll train you. And for example, in the village of Chebonza, we trained some of the men to be carpenters, and we bought them all the tools that they needed, we helped them get a system of buying lumber from somewhere else, and the whole system was free enterprise. Once they started producing furniture, then they would have to start paying our project back, on a monthly basis they have to pay us back, so it's not a free handout. When they pay us back we use this money to go to another village and start up another project.

MARK OWENS: For example, we, another group, we started a sewing cooperative in another village. And this group of women is making the covers for the chairs that the carpenters are making in another village. So we have one business now feeding another business. And in the same village with the carpenters another man is hacking metal out of an old truck body and making mousetraps and rattraps out of that.

CURWOOD: Now, how did you pay for all of this? How could you afford as naturalists, as zoologists, to go into a local town and transform their economy, say, well, you'll go to work as a carpenter or as a seamstress or whatever?

DELIA OWENS: It was difficult, Steve. We had to actually raise the money for that so we started our own foundation in this country, the Owens Foundation for Wildlife Conservation, based in Atlanta, and now we have over 200 people working on this program. In fact, it's been so successful, we had a man come up to us not long ago and say, I want to work for your project, but I believe I have to be a poacher first! And we said, no, you don't have to be a poacher first.

CURWOOD: Thank you very much, Delia and Mark Owens, author of The Eye of the Elephant. Thanks for joining me.

DELIA / MARK OWENS: Thank you, thanks for having us, Steve.



Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

P.O. Box 990007
Prudential Station
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Telephone: 1-617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Newsletter [Click here]

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

Creating positive outcomes for future generations.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Energy Foundation: Serving the public interest by helping to build a strong, clean energy economy.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.

Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth