The movie adaptation of Delia Owens’ ‘Where the Crawdads Sing’ is mired in an unexpected controversy over her past. The source: her involvement in a killing in Zambia. It cast the media spotlight on the racist side of wildlife conservation, which often values an animal more than a black life.
Editor’s note: This first part focuses on the Owens'—and the book/film. In the second part, we look at the racist/colonialist roots of wildlife conservation—and how it plays out even today both in Africa and in India.
Researched by: Anagha Srinivasan & Devaki Divan
Remind me about this book...
The book/movie: Delia Owens debut novel—‘Where the Crawdads Sing’—became a bestseller back in 2019, selling 15 million copies. It caught the attention of actor Reese Witherspoon—who selected it for her book club. She then came on as the producer for a movie adaptation—a prestige production directed by Olivia Newman, featuring an original single by Taylor Swift. The movie released last week to mixed reviews. Watch the trailer below:
Editor’s note: This bit contains a big plot spoiler.
The plot: The book is set in the South—and tells the story of a young woman Kya who survives in the wilds of North Carolina. Isolated from humans—and nicknamed the ‘Marsh Girl’—she communes with nature and the swamp’s flora and fauna. At its heart, this is a murder story centring on the killing of a man. TLDR: turns out he tried to rape Kya and she killed him.
The real-life plot twist: The success of the book uncovered Delia Owens’ past as a wildlife conservationist in Africa—alongside her then-husband Mark. Specifically, many were struck between the eerie parallels between its plot and a killing in Zambia. More astonishingly, this death was captured on-screen by an ABC News TV crew—which followed the Owens in 1994/95 for the news-magazine show ‘Turning Point’.
An on-air killing? What?
The show—which finally aired in 1996—focuses on the increasingly violent confrontation between poachers and the Owens—who are framed as “an idealistic American couple—young, in love” and dedicated to saving the animals. The shocking scene is introduced by this voice-over:
“We were allowed to accompany patrols in Zambia after we agreed not to identify those involved, should a shooting occur. On this mission, we would witness the ultimate price paid by a suspected poacher.”
Then a shot is fired in the distance, a scout runs through the bush—to find a man already lying on the ground. The scout shoots him once and then: “from offscreen, come three more shots. The camera stays focussed on the wounded man, lying on the ground. His body jerks at the first and third shots. Then it is still.”
ABC News blurred the faces of the scout and one other man on the scene—we can’t even see his race. And to date, the channel refuses to turn over footage of the scene. But you can see the shocking clip below:
Point to note: The ABC cameraman later told journalist Jeffrey Klein that Mark’s stepson Christopher fired the first and last shots captured by the footage.
So the Owens were killing poachers?
First, some background: Delia Owens moved with her husband Mark to Africa back in the 1970s—when they were both graduate students. Their aim was to find a place removed from humans. The couple first began working on wildlife conservation in Botswana—campaigning against the butchering of wildebeest. But their efforts to get international attention for their campaign earned the ire of the government—and they were kicked out.
The path to violence: In 1986, they bought a remote preserve in Zambia and focused on saving elephants being killed by poachers for ivory. Realising that the local scouts were outmatched by armed poachers, they started down the slippery slope of creating their own private militia:
“Mark Owens became the de facto commander of the scouts, harrying poaching parties with firecrackers shot from a Cessna and later, from a helicopter, menacing them with a machine gun. Under his command, scouts raided villages and roughed up residents in search of suspects and poached loot. In one (highly contested) letter, Mark Owens informed a safari leader that his scouts had killed two poachers and ‘are just getting warmed up’... ‘They thought they were kings,’ the recipient of this letter said of the Owenses. ‘He made himself the law, and his law was that he could do anything he wanted.’”
The letter ended with Mark asking for more ammo—“for pest control.” FYI: Mark’s son Christopher was put in charge of training the scouts in hand-to-hand combat—and reportedly “beat the game scouts as a form of discipline.” And the same rules applied to anyone suspected of poaching. One of their scouts told the New Yorker: “Mark Owens told us that anyone with meat or a weapon should have a beating.”
The Owens’ worldview: Even in the ABC News report, it is painfully obvious that they viewed killing poachers as the price of doing right. At one point, Mark tells his scouts:
“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? That means when you see the whites of his eyes, and if he has a firearm, you kill him before he kills you, because if you let him get—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, O.K.?”
When questioned about the on-air killing, Meredith Vieira, who appears in the documentary asks Mark if he thinks an animal's life is worth more than that of a human. His reply: “Worth more to whom? The elephant or the person? Ask the elephant. And ask the human. You’ll get two different answers.” But he goes on to say:
"I love life in general so much that to be brought to the point of having to extinguish human life to protect wildlife is a tremendous conflict and contradiction. But give me another solution. It’s why we still have elephants here."
And this murder was never investigated?
It was—but the investigation has long stalled out. The Zambian authorities are convinced that the alleged ‘poacher’ was shot by Chris Owens—Delia’s stepson. Mark Owens dumped the body in a lagoon—making it near-impossible to gather evidence. But they still want to bring charges against the Owens, according the country’s top prosecutor:
“Mark, Delia, and Christopher Owens are still wanted for questioning related to the killing of the alleged poacher, as well as other possible criminal activities in North Luangwa. ‘There is no statute of limitations on murder in Zambia,’ [Lillian Shawa-Siyuni] said. ‘They are all wanted for questioning in this case, including Delia Owens.’”
Siyuni also says: “I want to know how Mark and Delia brought guns into Zambia and turned themselves into law-enforcement agents.” But the country does not have an extradition treaty with the US—and the Owens remain safe as long as they stay home.
As for Delia: The Zambians view her as a possible witness, co-conspirator, and accessory to felony crimes. She, however, continues to insist that none of the Owens had any role in the killing.
Key quote to note: After the release of her book in 2019, Delia was asked about the murder. And she drew a striking parallel to the protagonist of her book:
“I was not involved. There was never a case, there was nothing…It’s painful to have that come up, but it’s what Kya had to deal with, name calling. You just have to put your head up or down, or whichever, you have to keep going and be strong. I’ve been charged by elephants before.”
“A number of people started emailing me about this book… So I got a copy of Crawdads and I have to say I found it strange and uncomfortable to be reading the story of a Southern loner, a noble naturalist, who gets away with what is described as a righteously motivated murder in the remote wild.”
The bottomline: We may never know what happened in Zambia, but the Owens’ worldview is hardly exceptional. As our next instalment reveals, wildlife conservation was born and shaped by a colonial mindset—which views some humans as far less valuable than wildlife. And we’ll see how even Indians have internalised that worldview in our conservation efforts. Also: Do we really have to choose between killing humans or animals?
Vanity Fair sums up the controversy over the book/film. Slate looks at how the plot parallels the killing in Zambia. Jeffrey Goldberg has the best reporting on the murder—see his original investigative report in the New Yorker, and more recent follow-up in The Atlantic. You can read an interview with Delia Owens in the New York Times. NPR has the responses from the filmmakers.