This is one of those books that you get caught up in and you can not put down until you have read it until the very end. I love a good biography and this is the true story of Karen Paolillo and her husband Jean-Roger. It is the story of their lives on a remote small holding in Zimbabwe. What began as a project to observe and document the lives of the resident hippos, while her husband worked on a mining interest, quickly became something so much bigger. Long hours spent with the hippos and her heart became entwined in the lives of the hippo family and then she was pushed to her limit to save them. First a drought, which they thought would never end… they carried in tons and tons of food in order to keep the hippos alive, and at enormous cost to herself and her marriage the hippos prevailed. But having survived the drought, a bigger problem came into play…
Relentless and violent pressure on them to leave their open land and their precious hippos in the hands of poachers during the terrifying time of land invasions. They refuse to leave and they literally fight for their lives and those of the precious hippos… You cannot read a book like this and come away unscathed, the depths that folk like Karen Paolillo are willing to go, way beyond “working hard” to keep the wild animals of Africa in place for generations to come is nothing short of heroic… most of us would have given up and yet she persevered. As the events and larger than life obstacles rise up and place themselves firmly between a peaceful herd of hippos and their survival… you cannot help reading on and on… this book looks like a book about saving a hippopotamus family, but it is so much more, it is the story of a piece of Zimbabwean history that wasn’t shared with the rest of the world. Land invasions written by someone who experienced them first hand… and the fact that this couple and their hippos survive is not just a good story, but a triumph.
This book was given to us for review purposes by Penguin Books South Africa. We were not paid for the review, and the opinion is as usual our own
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