One of the best things about my return to Zimbabwe was seeing old friends in the Save Valley Conservancy, people who helped inspire me when I was a teenager and influenced my direction into conservation. One of those people was Karen Paolillo, otherwise known as Madam Mvuu (‘mvuu’ means hippo in Shona), and her French geologist husband Jean-Roger. They have stuck it out through a tumultuous decade in Zimbabwe, one in which they have at the worst times been forced to flee their home on the banks of the Turgwe River for their own safety, as political insecurity threatened their lives. It hasn’t been easy for them, but they have always put the welfare of the pods of hippos on their back doorstep first, not to mention all the other animals (baboons, vervet monkeys, impalas, warthogs, elephants to name a few) who use the area around their house as a safe haven.
It’s an amazing thing to sit and have a cup of tea with this fascinating couple on the green grass out the front of their thatched roof home, metres from a cliff that drops off into a river full of hippos and crocs, while monkeys and baboons make themselves at home around you. I had to keep my wits about me with Solo, who, as a full of life toddler, thought they were some kind of weird ‘puppies’ so wanted to chase them around the yard! After we left that first day, Karen made a video of her sitting reading my book ‘Elephant Dance’ to one of the baboons at her house and honestly, as an author, to know that your work is appreciated like this is just pure magic! Have a look at Karen’s special relationship with Vixen the baboon here.
There is so much noise at Hippo Haven – the noise of the bush at large. To me, this is really Africa. Hippos grunt on sunset, the impalas were roaring as it was during the rut, and in the distance you can hear lions. I remember volunteering for Karen during my undergraduate university degree for a couple of weeks and being astonished by just how noisy the bush was on the Turgwe River at night. It wasn’t the kind of noise that kept you awake, but it sure made you feel alive, especially when it was a leopard coughing near where you were sleeping!
Karen has an amazing life story, one which she has written a book (which is bound to be brilliant) about, and you can read the condensed version of the history of the Turgwe Hippo Trust here. In the severe drought of the early 1990s Karen saved the Turgwe’s hippos from dehydration and certain death, and since 1993, her home in the Save Valley Conservancy at Hippo Haven has been the base of her long term behavioural study of the hippos. Over the years these hippos have produced 20 offspring, and recently Karen got some of the best footage I’ve ever seen of a hippo that had just given birth and her newborn calf, with a croc literally eating the afterbirth from her rear end. Check it out here.
I was surprised recently to learn that hippos are listed in the IUCN red list as Vulnerable, because the data suggests that there has been up to a 20% decline in the population in the last decade. Having seen the huge concentrations of hippos on the South Luangwa River in Zambia, I found that hard to believe initially, but it turns out that there are parts of Africa where hippos aren’t doing so well, and with climate change scenarios predicting increased aridity in the continent, this is one species conservationists will need to keep a close eye on. Hippos may kill more people than any other species in Africa, but they are extremely vulnerable if without one crucial thing – as Karen will testify from the years of drought: water. Hippos are so quintessentially Africa to me; I can’t really imagine the place without them.
Which brings me to the point of this blog, which is to let you know about an awesome opportunity for you to spend some time with Karen and the hippos in Zimbabwe. In my last blog I mentioned how Zimbabwe really is a great place to go now as a tourist. The same goes for volunteering. There has never been a better time, with the increasing sense of optimism in Zimbabwe, to get your hands dirty and experience the real Africa, while contributing in a useful way. You can volunteer at Hippo Haven for a minimum of 2 weeks at a time (this is so you get the most out of it) and really experience life in the wild. Karen’s lovely guest accommodation takes two people at one time, so this is the sort of operation where you are not one of a large mob but very much get to know the locals on a one on one basis. I don’t know of many operations that have that kind of exclusivity, and I know for certain you’re unlikely to go anywhere else where you are with someone who has such a long-held affinity with the hippos. It’s something special to sit with Karen on the river bank at sunset and watch the hippos at close quarters yawning and grunting to their hearts’ content. Karen offers very good rates for a two week volunteering stay, including transport to and from Hippo Haven from Harare, accommodation & food. Don’t miss out – if you have been thinking about going to Africa and doing something more meaningful than the average safari, this is an awesome opportunity. Check out Karen’s volunteering page here or drop her a line at firstname.lastname@example.org for a price list.