Sarah Chilvers from Peatmoor is supporting the Turgwe Hippo Trust in Zimbabwe by posting out calendars produced to support the work of Karen Paolillo who set up a sanctuary and has been protecting wild hippos for twenty years.
Sarah said, "Karen is an incredible woman who has been trying to ensure hippos in an area where poaching is rife. If it was not for Karen and the trust there probably would not be any hippos left in the Turgwe River. Everyday she has to go on snare patrol, saving other wildlife in the process and is currently protecting around 23 hippos.
"Karen is an expert on hippo behaviour after studying them daily for these past 20 years. If you would like to support the hippos and buy a calendar full of stunning photographs taken by Karen, please click on the link below and that will take you to her website where you can learn more about the great conservation work she does. You can even adopt your own hippo.
"Giving a calendar or adopting a hippo will make wonderful gift, remembered throughtout the next year."
Sarah Chilvers runs the Swindon branch of Animals Asia which is dedicated to improving animal welfare in China and Vietnam, with specific work to save Asiatic ‘moonbeams.’
Dedicated to the Giants of the River
Karen Paolillo (pictured), responsible for saving the last hippos on the Turgwe River, has led an extraordinary life, as Lis Dobb found out when interviewing her.
At first meeting one would be excused for thinking that Karen Paolillo was just an ordinary woman who happened to be at the right place at the right time during the 1991/92 drought, and so was able to save the last hippos on the Zimbabwean stretch of the Turgwe River.
English accent still to the fore, Karen sat up late into the night at her camp perched high above the Turgwe, talking to me about her life, which has included being brought up in a zoo; working as a casino croupier, and being under mortar attack during the liberation struggle; becoming the first woman to qualify as a professional safari guide in Zimbabwe; running a cattle ranch; being offered by George Adamson a job helping with his lion relocation; living in Holland, Gabon, France and Zimbabwe, and finally her work with hippos.
Born in Barnet, England, to a veterinarian father and a mother who ran the children’s zoo at the Duke of Bedford’s Woburn Abbey, Karen spent her early years "precociously introducing other children to the deer that roamed the park."
At the age of 15 she started to work for a circus during school holidays, but decided that this life was not for her. The film Born Free, seen when a child, created an overwhelming urge to come out to Africa to work with wild animals.
Thinking that life as a foreign correspondent would help take her to Africa, she started training as a journalist, but found the profession "too cynical and lacking in compassion." Hearing that British-trained casino croupiers were in worldwide demand, she trained as a croupier in Bournemouth. She applied for, and got a job, as a croupier at the ill-fated Elephant Hills Casino in the Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. After the newly opened casino was mortared and burnt out, she was transferred to Kariba.
"At Kariba I met numerous professional hunters and National Parks personnel, and accompanied them into the bush at every opportunity, while desperately seeking employment in a wildlife-related sphere. It was difficult, because nobody took this little English casino croupier seriously. " My sex and my size (she is a petite 5 ft. 4 in.) counted against me. No one thought I would be able to cope."
Finally her tenacity paid off, and a Lowveld hunter offered her the chance of becoming a learner guide with his safari operation to start photographic safaris. In 1980, she became the first woman to pass the professional hunter’s exams set by the Department of National Parks, allowing her to work in photographic safaris. So good was she that she won a competition to travel to the United Kingdom to promote Zimbabwean tourism.
In 1982, she married her first husband, a cattle rancher. She took and passed a cattle management course, and left guiding to help him run a 5,500 hectare ranch in Mashonaland North. She laughs when she relates how she arrested poachers by brandishing an empty gun at them." When I saw them I just grabbed the nearest weapon and went after them". It wasn’t loaded, but by then it was too late. I was so angry that I must have looked like a mad woman, and when I shouted at them to surrender, they did. I don’t know who was shaking more – them or me!"
Karen went to work on a game ranch in Mashonaland Central, after her divorce in 1985. She had, in the meantime, been corresponding with George Adamson, and in 1987 took leave and flew up to Kenya where she stayed at his camp. Adamson offered her a position as his assistant. Before she could take this up, she had to go to the Indian Ocean resort of Malindi to keep a rendezvous with her mother. While out snorkeling there, she met Dr Jean-Roger Paolillo, a French geologist on holiday.
It was love at first sight, and regretfully turning down Adamson’s offer, she returned to Zimbabwe to settle her affairs before joining Jean-Roger at his base in Holland. They were married in the French Alps in 1988, and she flew out to join him in the remote equatorial forests of Gabon. Missing Zimbabwe, she was overjoyed when Jean found a job in the country. They returned in 1990, to live in a remote bush camp on the Turgwe River, within the Save Valley Conservancy, in the southeast Lowveld of Zimbabwe.
Joyfully she explored the Turgwe River, walking its length doing a hippo census. Realizing that the Lowveld hippo population dropped dramatically since her days there as a professional guide, she began a personal study just before the devastating drought of 1991/92. When the hippo started to suffer, she decided action had to be taken.
Hers was the original idea of feeding hippo through the drought, an idea which was later taken on by the Wildlife Society of Zimbabwe and the Save our Wildlife Heritage group. However, the Turgwe River had dried up completely, and Karen elected to remain independent of the society’s efforts and commenced her own fundraising. She personally fed all of the Turgwe hippos. Funds for feeding were obtained locally and internationally from generous donors. Care for the Wild International, a British animal-welfare charity, donated funds to lay 15 km of water piping from the nearest neighbors Humani Ranch aquifer and to provide funds to build a deep concrete pan. Due to Karen’s efforts, none of the 13 hippos she looked after died once the feeding and water setup was established. Two of these female hippos actually conceived during the ten month feeding project.
With the approval of the Save Valley Conservancy, Karen has continued since 1993 with a behavioral study of the Turgwe Hippos. Since that year 20 hippo calves have been born. She spends an average of six hours a day, rain or shine, and has observed the hippos mating,watched some of their calves from the day of their birth, recorded amazing behavior and generally reached a kind of relationship with these Turgwe Hippos. She formed the Turgwe Hippo Trust in 1994.
The Turgwe Hippo Trust
The Turgwe Hippo Trust came into being after the horrendous drought of 1991/92, the worst in living memory. At the time I happened to be living within the Save Valley Conservancy and had already become alarmed at the decline of hippos in the Lowveld of Zimbabwe. Before the drought of 1993, over 2,000 hippos lived within the Lowveld; on my return in 1990, I discovered that the numbers had dropped dramatically to about only 600 animals. During the drought, I began an intensive feeding program of the last thirteen hippos in the Turgwe River below my home. All thirteen animals I personally fed during those ten months of the drought survived. In August 1992, the Turgwe River dried up completely, but thanks to the help of Care for the Wild, a British animal charity whom I contacted for help, we managed to build a cement and masonry pan and to lay a pipeline connected to a borehole sixteen kilometers away. The funding for this emergency project was obtained through their members.
The cost of saving these hippos was high, but the results have been worth the effort: five new calves born in 1993, three in 1995, three in 1996, four in 1997, and one so far in 1998. There are now thirty hippos back in the Turgwe River system. Sadly, in the Lowveld not more than 350 hippos have survived. Hippos are faced, like so many animals, with a shrinking habitat problem. Due to their semi aquatic lifestyle, they need large bodies of water in which to live. Africa’s rivers are slowly silting up, often due to stream bank cultivation and human populations living too close to the edges of our rivers. Although hippos can, through their movements, move silt to some extent, they still face the problem of their living areas becoming smaller with each year that passes. They need to find grazing in relatively close proximity to water for they eat up to forty-five kg of grass in one night. If cattle live in an area of hippo habitat, they compete with the hippos for grass. The total number of hippos left alive in Africa is a quarter of the entire elephant population. Often hippos are hunted and killed just for their lower canines, which are then carved and sold as trinkets to tourists.
Once I saved their lives in 1992, these hippos became hugely important to me. Not just because of my own commitment but also because I felt responsible to the many complete strangers who had helped me with sponsoring their food. Since December 1992, I have conducted a daily behavioral study of these Turgwe hippos, which has led to the creation of the Turgwe Hippo Trust in October 1994. The Trustees and myself wish to continue to assure a future for these hippos, and at a later stage look at helping hippos throughout Africa.
Initially, we have worked on projects for these Turgwe hippos in case of future reoccurrence of the worst-case scenario: another severe drought. We have built another "emergency pan," some three times larger that the one built in 1992. Thanks to the fantastic donation from Drillwell, a Bulawayo drilling company, we had two boreholes drilled and cased by them for free. Then again, with the help from a young British girl, Anita Bulusu, we managed to buy sixty percent of the necessary piping; with a further donation, the remaining forty percent of piping was laid and now one borehole is connected to both pans. Care for the Wild stepped in again in 1997 to help the hippos, supplying a grant to buy a borehole pump.
We now have sufficient backup water supply for both groups of hippos in the event of another drought striking. We hope to build a couple of new weirs in riverbeds. The erection of a cemented rock wall across a river will create a holding pool of water during our dry season, thus giving new habitat to the hippos. At this moment in time, three weirs already exist: these areas are the only places where, in a normal season, the hippos can live, for the river now only flows annually.
When the trust can obtain a four-wheel drive vehicle, we wish to bring local black school children on excursions to meet the hippos and learn about the important ecological role they play in the wild. Their dung scattering in the river provides essential nutrients for some fish species: they keep river channels open by their constant movements through the shallows; their ability to crop grass short with their lips creates natural firebreaks and modifies the vegetation to benefit other species. Like all animals within nature, a hippo is an important part of the whole ecosystem. Unfortunately, without human help, the hippos’ future looks rather dismal.
We are, I believe, the first and only non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation and protection of hippos in the world. Initially, we are focusing our attention on these Turgwe hippos. Once the Trust expands, we will be looking at other hippos in the southeast Lowveld; hopefully, at a later stage, we will be active in the whole of Zimbabwe and who knows, perhaps in other African countries as well.
The Trust has a fostering programme, which enables us to help the hippos with new projects for their welfare. We also sell merchandise such as hippo t-shirts, ornaments, and batiks. The Trust has already had five television companies film the hippos, as well as numerous articles published in newspapers and magazines both locally and internationally. We need more people to know about us in order to spread the word and therefore help the hippos.
If you wish to become a foster parent or to obtain more information to help us achieve our goals, please contact us.
Karen Paolillo, Turgwe Hippo Trust, Hippo Haven, P.O. Box 322, Chiredzi, Zimbabwe. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org