Sarah and David Chilvers from Peatmoor, well known in Swindon for their efforts to help rescued Asiatic moonbears in China and Vietnam, spent two weeks in September visiting the Turgwe Hippo Trust in Zimbabwe.
British citizen Karen Paolillo has dedicated the last 20 years to protecting and improving the lives of hippos living in the Turqwe River in the south east of the country, close to the borders with South Africa and Mozambique.
Sarah first made contact with Karen in 2010 and has become a keen supporter, helping to print and mail an annual calendar to supporters around the world. She said: “Karen’s story is quite amazing. She was a trained safari guide and in 1992 was building a home above the river which was drying up from the worst drought in living memory. She decided to rescue the last 13 surviving hippos and had to provide over a ton of food a night, and lay a water pipeline to a newly constructed cement pan from the nearest water source over 18 kilometres away.”
In the mid-2000s the land around Karen’s and her husband Jean’s home, owned by white ranchers who used it for nature conservancy as well as hunting, was invaded by Zimbabwean ‘war veterans.’ The lives of many land owners were threatened and their employees were in danger of losing their jobs. For the environment the level of poaching rose massively, almost destroying wildlife in the Lowveld area of the country. Karen and Jean found themselves removing thousands of poacher’s snares every year as well as protecting the hippos, none of whom were poached. It was a very difficult time trying to protect animals whilst not inflaming tensions with the people who had set up squatter camps nearby.
Sarah said: “Since the time of the drought in the early 90s, 47 hippo calves have been born and there are several family groups along her part of the Turgwe river, but the ever present threat of violence from poachers who set horrendous snares on the land around the hippo reserve, as well as the impact of human habitation on the river environment which supports a wide range of wildlife such as elephants, antelope, baboons and vervet monkeys.”
“Karen and Jean’s work has attracted thousands of visitors from around the world who have experienced the unique bond that Karen has formed with ‘her’ hippos, each with its own name. It was a very special experience to witness the close relationship she has with these wild hippos. They are dangerous animals but the Turgwe hippos know Karen’s voice and as we approached she is constantly calling out their names and talking to them to let them know it’s her. It was magical to spend hours sitting watching them from just 15 to 20 meters away.”
Sarah and Dave spent four days watching the hippos, feeding the monkey’s around the hippo haven and helping with game drives, and meeting the scouts who go out on snare patrols everyday. However the harsh realities of life in the bush hit them on their last day. Sarah explained: “We were out in the bush and sadly came across what we thought was a dead Zebra on the ground (pictured below). As Karen, Jean her husband and Dave and I approached, a young calf who was standing by the body ran off. We then realised the Zebra was still alive. It was just skin and bone and in a terrible state and then we saw it had a snare wrapped around its leg and all its flesh had wasted away.
“Karen said it had probably been caught in the copper snare a few weeks earlier and had travelled with its calf until it was too weak to go on and had been on the ground suffering for a day or two. There was nothing that could be done for her and it was truly heartbreaking seeing her suffer so Jean had to do the right thing and shoot her. He said that the calf was old enough to have been weaned so hopefully it would have found the rest of the herd.
“We saw the real beauty of Zimbabwe but also the impact of poaching the country suffers from. It’s thanks to Karen and her husband that many other animals are saved by their anti poaching patrols and total dedication to the hippos.”
Karen welcomes paying visitors and hands-on volunteers. See www.savethehippos.com for more information.
Karen has written a fascinating and moving autobiography ‘A Hippo Love Story’. It’s published by Penguin South Africa and is not available in the UK. However Sarah Chilvers has copies signed by Karen at £16 including p&p. It’s also available on Kindle.
Contact Sarah for the book or a Turge Hippo Trust calendar at: email@example.com