April 08, 1985 12:00 PM

by Mark and Delia Owens

This extraordinary book is the account of a scientific adventure that may well be unique, a kind of love story between a man and a woman and the world of nature. In 1974 a young American couple, Mark and Delia Owens, left the University of Georgia to pursue firsthand their lifelong fascination with the wild. By selling all their worldly goods, they raised $6,000 and set off for the great Kalahari Desert of Botswana in Southern Africa. By the time they arrived in the vastness of the desert’s Deception Valley, they had little more than a beat-up Land Rover, a pair of binoculars and a change of clothes. They were the only permanent human inhabitants in an area larger than Ireland. The nearest water was more than 50 miles away. Their food for several months consisted of little more than cereal and a cornmeal called mealie-meal. During the dry season (one drought lasted 18 months), the temperature routinely hit 115 degrees in the shade. This was their home for seven years. Despite the privations, the Owenses launched themselves into the work for which they had come—a study of the desert’s great predators, the Kalahari lion and the mysterious brown hyena. With almost foolhardy courage, the Owenses observed the animals’ behavior, their kills and their social organization from close range. The animals, of course, were also studying them. More than once Mark and Delia, both zoology students, awoke in their sleeping bags to find a pride of lions resting watchfully an arm’s length away. The hornbills and other birds that found the Owenses’ camp an excellent place to beg for food also warned of the approach of less-welcome visitors such as cobras, black mambas and puff adders. Delia tells how she stepped out of the makeshift shower one day and bumped into a curious but edgy brown hyena, whose jaws could crush the leg bone of an ox, ready to lap the bathwater. How the couple overcame the hazards of the desert and came to appreciate its living richness makes fascinating reading, and the book is illustrated with 77 of the Owenses’ photos, too. The threats to the animals of the Kalahari are formidable, but nature’s innocent killers and their prey have found eloquent champions in these authors. Read their remarkable book to be delighted, moved and awed by life and death in a world without man that yet may be ended by him. (Houghton Mifflin, $19.95)

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