After studying lions in Botswana and writing their better known Cry of the Kalahari, naturalists Mark and Delia Owens left for Zambia. There the Owenses dedicated themselves to further animal research, mostly into the lives of a dwindling elephant population. The 2006 memoir Secrets of the Savanna recounts their work and the close shaves they had there.
Poaching leads to fewer elephants, a larger number of orphans, and a dissolution of typical elephant society. The authors document how the absence of adult females and matriarchs results in earlier pregnancies for orphaned females. They tell us the story of the orphaned Gift, who becomes a mother too early and whose daughter suffers from her inexperience.
The Owenses also tell stories of their youth as they correspond to elements of the animal kingdom. For example, Mark relates his father’s death and his own wanderings outside the U.S. to solitary males in other species like lions and elephants. Delia tells a story of fun and safety in numbers as a teenage female and relates that to life in the elephant herd. Their share sweet passages about their respective upbringings in Ohio and Georgia.
But like all social mammals, the couple realizes that it’s time to migrate home. As they plan to leave Zambia, corrupt officials make plans to swoop in and take over their research station. The research project has created jobs and given locals alternatives to poaching for ivory. The corrupt officials want to end the research program so the locals will have no alternative but to poach again on their behalf. It’s a frightening prospect, but the book ends on an optimistic note as one of the local program supporters is able to restore aspects of the project.
Secrets of the Savanna is a well-written book with charming scenes and prose. While the subject matter of the threatened elephants is gut-wrenching, the Owenses plant enough seeds of hope for a rebound in the population.