Entertainment Where the Crawdads Sing author Delia Owens is wanted for questioning in a decades-old murder mystery in Zambia

00:41  31 july  2022
00:41  31 july  2022 Source:   abc.net.au

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The video of the man's death is shaky, chaotic and brutal.

A US television crew had been dispatched to Zambia to film the story of a young American couple on a mission to protect African wildlife from poachers.

Instead, they ended up recording — and then broadcasting on prime-time television in 1996 — a murder.

The details of what happened are unclear and ABC America agreed to blur the identities of those involved.

However, it appears that a suspected poacher was found, chased through a wildlife park and then shot four times, execution style.

"The bodies of the poachers are often left where they fall for the animals to eat," the reporter says in the voiceover as the scene unfolds.

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As the camera zooms in on the man's body, the reporter mulls on what the audience has just seen: "Conservation. Morality. Africa."

The slaying in Zambia's North Luangwa National Park may have forever remained a mystery.

And the identity of the man killed has never been revealed nor his body recovered.

However, 26 years after the shocking video was aired, the events of that day are facing renewed scrutiny.

Delia Owens — who was then an American wildlife conservationist working at the park — has since become a bestselling author.

Her 2018 debut novel, Where the Crawdads Sing, has sold 15 million copies and been adapted to the screen by Reese Witherspoon.

And, with the movie now in cinemas, Zambian officials say it's time for Owens and her family to come back and answer their questions.

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While Owens has vigorously denied any involvement, Zambian officials reportedly believe she is potentially a vital witness who could help solve the mystery.

'Maybe if we survive this, we can start over'

Long before she wrote one of the bestselling novels of recent years, Delia Owens was a biologist who moved to Africa with her husband, Mark, to study lions, hyenas and elephants.

They wrote in their memoir that they arrived in Botswana with "two backpacks, two sleeping bags, one pup tent, a small cooking kit, a camera, one change of clothes each and $6,000".

"It was all we had to set up our research."

However, the couple said they soon witnessed the mass poaching of wildebeests and began lobbying the government to intervene.

In 1986, they were asked to leave the country because, they claimed, their activism was seen as a threat to the local cattle industry.

They moved to Zambia, where they became "honorary game rangers" at the North Luangwa National Park.

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The title gave them authority over the scouts who worked in the park to protect local wildlife from poachers.

In their memoir, they said it became clear that poachers wielding AK-47s were hunting down elephants so they could sell their tusks on the booming black market for ivory.

"Now we understand why we have not seen a single living elephant, or a sign of one," they wrote In their 1992 book, The Eye of the Elephant.

"We are standing in the midst of a killing field."

With the support of foreign donations, the couple turned the scouts into a small army with Mark at the helm.

Occasionally, Mark's son, Christopher, would spend summers with his father and stepmother at the park.

A martial arts expert, Christopher taught the scouts hand-to-hand combat.

Delia said the anti-poaching force became an "obsession" for Mark, and her husband took increasingly large risks to protect elephants.

Their memoir details night-time raids they called "village sweeps", in which the scouts confronted suspected poachers in their beds.

Mark Owens also claims that he converted a shotgun so that it could shoot harmless fireworks instead of live ammunition.

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If they suspected a poacher was in the area, Mark and the scouts would fly by in a Cessna and he would hang from the door of the plane, firing cherry bomb firecrackers.

Delia wrote in her memoir that she became terrified that Mark would be killed, or that poachers could potentially seek revenge on both of them.

She packed her belongings and set up a tent on the banks of a nearby river.

"I love you," she wrote in a note that she left for Mark.

"Maybe if we survive this, we can start over."

But their break up did not last long.

By the time they had reconciled and Delia moved back into the house, a call came from a TV news producer in New York.

'We were not involved in this incident'

The hour-long documentary about the couple was commissioned by ABC America in the heyday of big, expensive news magazine programs.

For Turning Point — a program that struck ratings gold with extensive coverage of the OJ Simpson murder trial — two attractive young Americans who took on African poachers were irresistible.

It took two years to film and finally aired in 1996.

"They went halfway around the world to follow a dream," Diane Sawyer said in her introduction.

"An idealistic American couple — young, in love. But a strange place and time would test that love."

Few remnants of the documentary still exist online.

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However, Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor of The Atlantic, was mailed a copy by a conservationist several years after it was broadcast.

In it, he said Mark was recorded telling the scouts not to hesitate to shoot a poacher.

"If you see poachers in the national park with a firearm, you don't wait for them to shoot at you. You shoot at them first, all right?" he said.

"If you let him turn on you with an AK-47, he's going to cut you in two. So go out there and get them. Go get them, OK?"

Halfway through the documentary, a team of scouts — who are never identified — come across an abandoned campsite that is suspected to have been set up by poachers.

The reporter then claimed what happened next was "the ultimate price paid by a suspected poacher".

That episode was broadcast in March 1996, but with no social media to make such moments go viral, the on-air murder did not cause much of a stir.

However, a month later, the Delia and Mark Owens sent a letter to their donors to address concerns raised about "some of the footage from that program".

They said the 'shoot-to-kill policy' was only used by Zambian government game scouts in self defence.

"It is not a policy of our project," they wrote.

"We were not involved in this incident, or in any other incident of this nature."

Zambian authorities seized the park and police launched a criminal investigation.

ABC America refused to hand over the footage, likening the request to "asking for another reporter's notebook".

With the body nowhere to be found, the Americans back on US soil and the ABC video tapes in New York, the case soon stalled.

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Where the Crawdads Sing

In 2018, Delia — by then divorced from Mark and starting her life over — published a novel called Where the Crawdads Sing.

Her publisher wasn't sure how a book written by a first-time novelist in her early 70s would go and ordered a small run of 28,000 copies.

However, when Reese Witherspoon chose it for her book club and scooped up the movie rights for her production company, the novel became a sensation.

The book tells the story of Kya, a young woman abandoned by her parents and forced to fend for herself in the wild marshes of North Carolina.

"Where the Crawdads Sing is at once an exquisite ode to the natural world, a heartbreaking coming-of-age story, and a surprising tale of possible murder," Owens's publisher, Penguin Random House, said of the novel.

The murder plot that dominates the second half of the book sees Kya accused of killing a former lover in the marsh.

However, when asked during her book tour about parallels between Kya's predicament and her own alleged connections to a crime, Owens was strident.

"I was not involved. There was never a case. There was nothing," she said.

When the movie was released this month, Zambia confirmed the case of the murdered man is still open.

No charges have been brought against anyone, and Zambian officials told Jeffrey Goldberg that they don't suspect Delia Owens of wrongdoing.

"Zambian authorities don't believe Delia was directly involved in the murder or the disposal of the body," Goldberg told NBC's Today Show.

"What they believe is that she's the most important witness."

Some critics have panned the film, in part because they said the real murder makes watching a fictional one unfold on screen an uncomfortable experience.

However, Where the Crawdads Sing has once again found a loyal audience. It has already grossed $44 million worldwide.

And, for Delia Owens, who continues to maintain her innocence, the controversy surrounding her past is something she will endure.

"It's painful to have that come up, but it's what Kya had to deal with: name-calling," she told the New York Times.

"You have to keep going and be strong. I've been charged by elephants before."

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