“This was the first time that I fully understood the hippos to be the guardians of the lesser creatures of the river, but it was not to be the last. In only a few short months, and for the years to come, these hippos themselves would need guardians. It seemed I had found my place in the world.”
I have a new conservation hero, her name is Karen Paolillo. Karen’s newly published book, ‘A Hippo Love Story’ is an account of her brave life in Zimbabwe, which began in 1990 when she and her French husband, Jean-Rodger, first settled alongside the Turgwe River. The river is home to numerous hippo families, and one particular hippo family that become a central part of this important story, as Karen’s life become intertwined with theirs. The book opens with Karen’s first Turgwe hippo encounter (a pretty terrifying experience!). In fact, any ‘normal’ person would be traumatised by such an event – but Karen is not ‘normal’ – and I mean this in the best way possible. How many other humans spend six hours a day in the company of hippos? How many people would willingly risk their own lives for these animals, battling drought, floods and worst of all, human greed? It takes guts, perhaps even madness! This is Karen’s life, a life dedicated to saving her beloved hippos.
‘A Hippo Love Story’ is an easy-to-read book in the sense that it is written in simple language, like having a conversation with a friend. Yet as a soft-hearted animal lover, I struggled over it. Reading Karen’s book made the violence in Zimbabwe personal – I had definitely not fully comprehended the reality of the systematic annihilation of Zim’s beautiful wildlife, (under the instruction of the so called ‘war vets’) until now. The havoc that human greed can wreck in the lives of animals (and people), even in the short time frame of a few months is frightening. For Karen and Jean-Rodger to remain living in a land so ravaged by evil, and continue to fight for that little bit of remaining hope (In doing so becoming that very hope themselves) takes love of an extraordinary kind – Karen’s love for her hippos.
The intelligence and human-like empathy of elephants is well documented, yet hippos are often seen as little more than ruthless man-killers. Karen’s time with the Turgwe ‘river horses’ tells a different story. Hippos have different personalities and temperaments, they have memories not unlike elephants (affecting the way they react to humans), and they even groom crocodiles! One particular hippo, Bob, is especially special to Karen, inviting her into his world and recognising her by voice.
A Hippo Love Story is a testament to the strength of the human spirit, the importance of love and understanding between human and animal, the remarkable (often misunderstood) creature that is the hippo, and the continent of Africa which, despite it’s dark side, has gripped the souls of men and women (including myself) who could call no other place home.
Karen is the founder of the Turgwe Hippo Trust, (a non-profit organisation for the protection of the Turgwe Hippos in the south east lowveld of Zimbabwe) More information on her amazing work can be found on the official website, (where you can even adopt a hippo!) and her Facebook page.
A Hippo Love Story was published by Penguin Books, and was released in South Africa this month (May 2014)