A long while ago – back in 1995, I met a woman known to the locals in Zimbabwe as Madam Mvuu, which translated into the Shona language means literally ‘Mrs Hippo’. Back when I was aspiring to be a wildlife conservationist in Africa, something that seemed like an impossible dream at the age of about 17, Karen Paolillo encouraged me to take the plunge, not just in her words of encouragement, but by setting a fine example. While volunteering for her, I recall being in the driver’s seat of her dilapidated old Peugeot bakkie, holding my foot on the brakes on a downhill slope near her house, while she tried to save a puff adder that had crawled inside the engine with a long stick, before walking across rocks to where hippos slept in the midday sun, sunning themselves on the river bank. What an adventure every day was! For a fledgling researcher, it was the stuff of dreams, and these early encounters with wild animals drove me to help make my dreams a reality. Almost twenty years later, Karen and I are still friends and I’m delighted to share that her biography, “A Hippo Love Story” has just hit the book shelves. My oh my, is this a gobsmacking journey! This is one worth reading, folks.
From back in the early 1990s during the worst drought that Zimbabweans could remember, in the lowveld’s Save Valley Conservancy, Karen took it upon herself to save a pod of hippos in the Turgwe River from certain death. Born in England, Karen moved to Zimbabwe as a young girl and ended up training as a safari guide in Zimbabwe, in what was then pretty much an exclusive male profession. She was always a great animal lover, and that is one of the things that always stood out to me about Karen. She doesn’t have pets; the animals are her family. From her domestic cats to the wildlife that live with her at her home on the Turgwe, everything from vervet monkeys and baboons to warthogs and lately, a mongoose called Squiggle, animals are literally her closest kin.
This unique book spans a couple of decades. It is, above all, a story of one woman’s love for hippos and the journey she has taken, along with her rugged French geologist hubby, Jean-Roger, to ensure their safety from drought, hunting and most recently, war veterans and poachers. Karen’s compassion for animals, her tenacity and determination to prevail in the most trying of circumstances is inspiring, to say the least. But this is also a love story between two people, and when I read about the lengths that Jean-Roger has gone to to protect his wife and support her conservation efforts, it brought a tear to my eye on more than one occasion. One of the most enthralling sections of the book, towards the end, involves the story of when resident war veterans accused Jean-Roger of killing a poacher and walked him through the bush for many miles, hand-cuffed and without water or food, in the searing February heat to deliver their form of ‘tribal justice’. You’ll have to read the book to find out how this story ends. Suffice to say the Paolillos’ courage under fire and the support of some of their neighbours (the Whittall family in particular) as they tried to stop the onslaught of poaching in their area that has ensued since 2000 will leave you in no doubt that the Turgwe’s hippos got lucky the day they moved in to the neighbourhood.
There are moments of exhilaration in Karen’s story, and others when you will shudder at the horror of what humans do to animals and to each other, and above all, the descriptions of the behaviours of the wonderful animals of Africa that Karen shares her special insights to, take you right there into their magical part of the world and make you want to visit…. which by the way, you can! Karen takes volunteers, usually two at a time for a couple of weeks, at Hippo Haven, and it’s a volunteering experience that I highly recommend (read more here). You can also help support her long term study of hippo behaviour and conservation by sponsoring a hippo or donating at the Turgwe Hippo Trust. Many people don’t know that hippos are actually classified by the IUCN as Vulnerable and decreasing, with the strongholds for the population in East Africa, and the largest southern African population in Zambia. Loss of their habitat and illegal hunting for meat and teeth are the primary threats.
When you spend every day in the bush, and patiently observe the behaviour of animals, they become accustomed to your presence. Karen has a very special relationship with the Turgwe hippos, who respond to the sound of her voice and are calmed by it (while other human voices, due to the disturbance of recent times, have the opposite effect). This has allowed her to observe some extraordinary behaviours over the years, like their interaction with crocodiles. “A Hippo Love Story” shares many of these observations and anecdotes, and you can watch some of her videos here, including the famous video below she captured of a crocodile eating the afterbirth out of a female hippo’s rear end while the newborn paddled right next to it (you’ve got to see this one to believe it; it’s received almost 35,000 hits on youtube!).
If you love Africa and wildlife, don’t deprive yourself of this read. It is one of the most genuine, heartfelt stories from the inside of Zimbabwe that I’ve read in a while and it will leave you in no doubt that individuals can and do make a difference. Those who persevere can truly change the world.