Why 'Where the Crawdads' Author Delia Owens Is Wanted for Questioning About a Murder in Africa

The big screen adaptation of Owens' hit novel, starring Daisy Edgar-Jones, hits theaters Friday

Delia Owens attends the "Where The Crawdads Sing" photo call at The West Hollywood EDITION on June 07, 2022 in West Hollywood, California.
Photo: Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty

Just like her Where the Crawdads Sing character Kya, author and former wildlife scientist Delia Owens has some questions to answer about a murder.

Kya, a nature lover known in her North Carolina town as "marsh girl," stands trial for murdering her former lover. Today, Owens, 73, still finds herself involved with a murder investigation regarding an incident that took place in Africa in the '90s.

It all started when Owens and her former husband Mark, who ran the Owens Foundation for Wildlife Conservation together, moved to Africa two years after getting married in 1972. The couple settled in Zambia's North Luangwa National Park and made it their mission to protect elephants from poachers.

"I've been with grizzly bears. I've been charged by elephants. I've been charged by lions more times than I could even say," Delia, 73, tells PEOPLE in this week's issue as the book's film adaptation opens in theaters. "We can learn about human nature from nature itself. I started realizing that as I was watching lions with their cubs or elephants with their herd mates."

Given the pair's commitment to their cause, the Zambian government gave the Owenses authority over local scouts to help keep poachers from the elephants. "We know it's a risk,'' Mark told PEOPLE in 1988. ''But we've fallen in love with this place, and we're willing to take that risk."

Mark and Delia's efforts caught the attention of ABC's Turning Point and the news program sent a crew to North Luangwa to interview the Owenses and capture their work firsthand. Deadly Game: The Mark and Delia Owens Story aired in March 1996, with Meredith Vieira reporting the story. The documentary captured three rounds of shots being fired at an unidentified "trespasser," as Vieira referred to him, because no one knew for sure if he was a poacher. The first round of shots happened before the cameras started rolling, and who the second two came from remains unclear. The faces of the potential shooters were blurred.

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Former ABC reporter Deborah Amos interviewed Mark and Delia on the grounds in Zambia after the shooting took place, though the journalist wasn't aware of the incident at the time of the interview. "There was a tension in the air that was very clear to me when I got there," Amos tells PEOPLE. "My job was to come and interview them, and there was just no way I could set up the rapport that you want for a story like that because there was something wrong, but I couldn't figure out why."

Mark and Delia Owens in the North Luangwa National Park in Zambia. 9/90.
William Campbell/Corbis via Getty

The shooting brought the Owenses' work in Africa under scrutiny and prompted questions about who killed the trespasser. The cameraman who filmed the incident, Chris Everson, has claimed that Mark's son from his first marriage, Christopher, fired the first and last bullets. Delia denied that accusation and told The New Yorker in 2010 that the poaching in North Luangwa had actually ended by the time the ABC cameras arrived and that the television journalists "just wanted something sensational."

Amos describes her interview with Delia and Mark as "tense" and says she and her ABC colleagues rarely saw the Owenses around the park. "Maybe if they weren't so worried I was going to ask them a question about Mark's son it would've been different," she speculates.

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The Owenses left Zambia after Deadly Game aired and never returned, relocating to a remote part of Idaho. Zambian authorities didn't press formal charges or name suspects, but continue to investigate. An Atlantic story published Monday reports that Zambian national police still want to question Mark, Delia and Chris about the death of the alleged poacher, as well as their overall activity in North Luangwa. However, according to The Atlantic, the absence of an extradition treaty between the United States and Zambia, along with ABC's reported failure to cooperate, has stalled any potential investigation. (ABC did not immediately return PEOPLE's request for comment.)

"There is no statute of limitations on murder in Zambia," Zambia's director of public prosecutions, Lillian Shawa-Siyuni told The Atlantic. "They are all wanted for questioning in this case, including Delia Owens."

Despite the ongoing mystery, Delia's love of wildlife never waned. "During all this time and being in nature, I was so inspired," she says. "I had this burning desire to write a novel that would explore how much we can learn about ourselves from nature."

Delia began the decade-long process of writing Where the Crawdads Sing while working as a wildlife scientist. "A couple of times I gave up and once even put it in a closet for more than a year in a box. I just thought, 'That's not gonna go anywhere,'" Delia admits. "And I think that that helped the manuscript. I think writing improves with aging just like wine."

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
Penguin Publishing Group

She eventually finished the book and it debuted in August 2018. "Delia is so caring and down to earth, and she carried the story of Kya close to heart for years," her editor at G. P. Putnam's Sons, Tara Singh Carlson, tells PEOPLE. "It's been wonderful to see that perseverance to bring a story and character into the world rewarded."

Delia hasn't let the question of what exactly happened in Zambia dampen her success. She quietly divorced Mark after more than 40 years and moved to North Carolina, where she spent summers as a kid — and set Crawdads.

The book has now sold more than 12 million copies, spent 166 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller List. It's now on the big screen as a film adaptation produced by Reese Witherspoon, who made Where the Crawdads Sing her September 2018 book club pick.

"I wouldn't have thought that any person could have four years of such joy," Delia says. "I have received messages from all over the world telling me how much Kya's story meant to them. That connection with the readers has been the most important part to me."

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