The life of acclaimed author Delia Owens is perhaps even more gripping than the story of her smash hit Where the Crawdads Sing.
The American novelist, who has been writing fiction since the 70s, topped bestseller lists in 2019 with her novel about life in the marshlands of North Carolina. The rights were picked up by FOX and a big-screen adaptation, starring Normal People‘s Daisy Edgar-Jones, produced by Reese Witherspoon, is hitting cinemas now.
Someone had better snap up the rights to Owens’ own life though, as her background as an armed wildlife conservationist in Zambia and Botswana is truly beyond belief. Her crusading and disturbing past however appears to have caught up with her, as the film and book’s popularity reignite calls for her to return to Zambia for questioning over the murder of an alleged ‘poacher.’
Here’s where it gets wild.
The Owens, Delia, husband Mark, and their son Chris, had been living in Zambia — a former British colony in central-southern Africa — and Botswana for a number of years as conservationists, documenting their efforts in books and journals. Their role in Zambia appears to have been the protection of elephants, namely in the North Luangwa National Park in the remote east of the country.
Delia co-authored her second non-fiction novel with Mark, The Eye of The Elephant, based on their experiences there. In this book, they document clashes with locals, the decimation of the local elephant population, and corruption at a national level. The book interested the American channel ABC News, which decided to film a documentary about the couple who had appointed themselves the (white) saviours of Zambian elephants.
While filming Deadly Game: The Mark and Delia Owens Story, ABC cameramen captured and published actual footage of an execution of a man presumed to be a poacher. There is a genuine, horrifying film clip out there of real execution which went live on American television in 1996 but we’d strongly advise against watching it.
The man is never named and the person who fired the shot is off-screen. Witnesses state however that Chris Owens was an aggressor at the scene and he has since been convicted multiple times for assault. ABC has refused to cooperate with Zambian authorities to name the person who pulled the trigger while the actual crime this person is suspected of carrying out is vague. It’s unclear if they were a poacher or merely a “trespasser,” although trespassing onto what is also unclear.
Soon after the killing, the Owens moved back to the states. The Frankfurt Zoological Society, which funded its operations, took over wildlife conservation in the region and appears to be doing a good job in keeping the animals safe.
There’s a brilliant, 18,000-word New York Times piece on the Owens’ exploits in Zambia entitled ‘The Hunted’ which asks whether these American guardians of wildlife went too far in their self-appointed roles. The family commanded a troop of local, armed scouts to patrol the park, ran air raids on poachers, and, it is alleged, beat their scouts in order to maintain discipline.
According to reporting in The Atlantic, Mark Owens faxed a letter to neighbouring professional hunter, P J Fouche, who ran a legitimate game reserve next to North Luangwa, warning him that: “To date, I have flown eight airborne antipoaching operations over your area, including four in which I inserted scouts on ambush.”
“Two poachers have been killed and one wounded that I know of thus far, and we are just getting warmed up.”
The letter also asked for assistance with poachers, requesting “as much ammo as you can” and “cracker shells” (fireworks launched from a shotgun) for “pest control.”
Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor of The Atlantic, has made numerous trips to Zambia to get the details of this wild story. He notes that Zambia, unlike Kenya, never had a shoot-to-kill policy for dealing with the crime of wildlife poaching and that the Ownes appeared to exploit the vast remoteness and somewhat lawlessness of the eastern region of Zambia to become their own private militia.
Wildlife poaching exploded across the remote region in the late 1960s and early 70s. North Luangwa’s estimated 70,000-strong elephant population was brought down to almost extinction during the period by armed teams of international and local professional hunters.
The price of ivory soared due to Asian demand and veterans of local conflicts moved in to fund further war efforts. It’s a heartbreaking mix of poverty, desperation, and the lure of international money that in many senses makes the locally employed poachers themselves as much of a victim of international pressures as the elephants they killed.
Delia Owens’ latest novel has disturbing parallels to this period in her life. We won’t go into detail here to avoid spoilers, but suffice to say that certain actions are ‘justified’ by characters and that knowing this real-life backstory adds menace to the film and the novel.
To be clear, the Owens deny any and all allegations and claim they were nowhere near the scene at the time of the murder. However, Zambian authorities have said that they still want to interrogate Chris and Mark over the incident while Delia is wanted for questioning as a witness, a co-conspirator, and an accessory to serious crimes. The ABC team is also wanted.
The detective in charge of the investigation in Lusaka, Zambia’s capital, has said:
“The ABC News show is an accessory to murder, either after the fact or during the committing of this murder. The cameraman and reporter are accomplices to this. The docket is still open on this case. Why won’t the cameraman come in and tell us what he saw and show us his film?”
As others have pointed out, Delia and Mark’s books are full of racist tropes and belittling representations of Zambians and the African continent in general. The hunter Fouche sums up their approach thus: “Their whole attitude was ‘Nice continent. Pity about the Africans’.”
There is no statute of limitations for murder in Zambia however the US does not have an extradition treaty with the country either. Unless the Owens return to Zambia of their own free will for questioning, it’s unlikely that they will ever face consequences for their alleged involvement.
Authorities in Zambia remain troubled by their actions in the country and those involved in the making of the film have so far yet to respond to controversies around the author.
Zambia’s chief prosecutor, Lillian Shawa-Siyuni, has said questions remain. “I can’t even go into the U.S. embassy with a camera. I want to know how Mark and Delia brought guns into Zambia and turned themselves into law-enforcement agents.”