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  Bushmen of the Kalahari

The two lionesses Spicy and Spooky.
The two lionesses "Spicy" and "Spooky."

In 1974, as young college graduates, Mark and Delia Owens decided that they could not wait to obtain financial security before beginning their careers as field zoologists. So, after auctioning off their possessions, they headed to Africa with one-way air tickets, backpacks and $6,000--to establish a research project in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in Botswana.

With their meager funds, Delia and Mark purchased a third-hand Land Rover, some basic camping equipment and supplies, and headed off into a 100,000-square-mile void on the map of Botswana. There were no roads, no towns, and only a few bands of native bushmen in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. After a grueling reconnaissance through one of the most remote deserts of the world, Mark and Delia eventually settled in a tree island in Deception Valley, more than eight hours from the nearest outpost of civilization. In ancient times, the Kalahari was defined by rivers, whose dry channels remain today, bordered by slightly elevated sand dunes. Deception Valley is located on one of these ancient river beds.

Delia Owens greets the brown hyena Pepper.
Delia Owens greets the
brown hyena "Pepper."

For seven years, Delia and Mark lived in tents, and studied a pristine wilderness and its inhabitants. They did landmark research on black-maned Kalahari lions and the elusive brown hyena. They survived violent storms, wildfires and 120-degree heat while conducting their research. They chronicled their findings in their book Cry of the Kalahari and in a series of articles in popular and scientific publications such as Natural History (Feb 1980), International Wildlife (Sept-Oct 1983), Life (Nov. 1984), and Nature (April26/May 2, 1984).

The leopard named Pink Panther.
The leopard named
"Pink Panther."

Their life in the Kalahari was rewarding but dangerous. In the end, it was their dedication and love of the place and its wildlife that dictated that they must leave. The Kalahari was hit hard by the African drought of the late 70s and early 80s and dried into miles of dusty badlands. While flying aerial reconnaissance during this period, Mark spotted one of the largest wildebeest migrations ever recorded. The wildebeest were pushing north toward natural water sources that had been available for thousands of years during extreme drought. However, this time, their way was blocked by long veterinary cordon fences erected by the government to separate wild ungulates from domestic stock. Officials believed erroneously that the wild animals would infect cattle with 'hoof-and-mouth disease'. It is now known that the wildlife of the Kalahari had never been infected with the disease, but a quarter of a million wildebeest died along these ill conceived fences. When Mark and Delia could not convince Botswana officials to remove the fences, they exposed this environmental disaster through publications in international journals. In the end, the Botswana government accepted most of the recommendations that Mark and Delia made to conserve the Kalahari, and resolved to maintain the Central Kalahari as a wildlife protectorate. In 1986, before beginning their new research and conservation project in the North Luangwa National Park of Zambia (See North Luangwa Conservation Project), Mark and Delia returned to the Central Kalahari of Botswana and found the lions and brown hyenas that they had studied for many years.

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Bushmen of the Kalahari
Bushmen of the Kalahari.
Bushmen of the Kalahari.
Photo courtesy of Keith Carter
Pilgram Relief Society

During their seven years of working for conservation in the Kalahari Desert of Botswana, Delia and Mark Owens were greatly impressed with the Bushmen who live in this vast, harsh wilderness. Delia and Mark believe that the San belong to the Kalahari and should be allowed to continue their hunter-gatherer lifestyle in harmony with the natural balance of the Kalahari.

However, should any members of the Bushmen decide to alter their lifestyle to include agriculture and the raising of livestock, it would be destructive to the fragile ecological balance of this protected wilderness area. Delia and Mark believe that Bushmen wishing to raise crops and livestock should be allowed to live on the lands surrounding the Central Kalahari Game Reserve where their activities will not endanger the survival of the plants, animals and people that currently live within the Reserve in harmony.

Delia and Mark hope that the Bushmen will continue their amazing hunter-gatherer lineage as an inspiring part of the Kalahari ecosystem.

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