Hi, my name is Karen Paolillo, Founder of the Turgwe Hippo Trust here in Zimbabwe.
As a little girl growing up in the UK, I told my Mum that one day I would live and work with wild animals in Africa. At that time I was horse mad and anything pony or horse caught my attention and fueled my passion. Well I made it to Africa and found myself working with the River Horse, the awesome hippopotamus. I am living proof that your dreams can come true if you focus one hundred percent on them.
I had the background of my Mum running a small pets’ corner zoo with domestic and exotic animals and a father who was a vet, but I took on two totally different professions. These professions were as far removed from animals and wildlife as they possibly could be. I had a young mind that was looking for ways to get to Africa. Initially training in journalism, I then moved on to the most artificial of worlds as a croupier in a casino. These two professions allowed me to develop a hardened exterior, a bit like a tortoise whose shell is tough and hard but whose inner body is soft and vulnerable. Thanks to those two professions I managed later to survive the challenges of Africa. Africa is a place where emotions have to be hidden if you wish to survive. Animals are not red in tooth and claw like the documentaries lead us to believe, but man certainly can be and life in Africa can be filled with hidden dangers where one’s life is even threatened. It is not a land of rules and regulations; it’s a place that is still wild and the animals and its people are not in cages or in most cases in comfortable homes. They live with the land in a way that has been lost to so many in first world countries.
I arrived in Africa and through determination and persistence finally found a person who was prepared to accept the then new concept of a girl working as a safari guide in the bush, taking tourists to meet animals. At that time, girls worked as camp managers or in catering, but not as guides… I sat the National Parks professional guides’ exam, which involved studying animals’ habitats and behavior, as well as working alongside a professional hunter to know how to behave in the bush. I was the first female to pass this exam and became a professional safari guide. I was to find that working as a guide was fun in meeting people and teaching them about Africa’s inhabitants, but if you are actually a good guide your time is spent more with the people and looking after them then being with the animals. I realized that I wanted more.
Fate, destiny or the Universe delivering, whatever you see it as, I was to find myself in 1990 alongside my husband living here in the bush with our nearest neighbors being two families of hippos. I had turned down an offer by the famous George Adamson of Born Free fame to work with him in his lion rehabilitation project to marry a good looking Frenchman, and so let my heart rule my head. It was the best move of my life.
For I now follow my passion. I am the Founder of the Turgwe Hippo Trust and every day I live my life for the animals and with the animals. Only yesterday myself and my good friend Mirinda Thorpe, who came here intially as a volunteer, spent moments in time with a wild family of baboons, just sitting in the bush with them as they went about their natural business. We then moved on to the hippos where for the first time in 21 years I am having to feed them again as they have no natural food left in the bush due to lack of rains. Here we watched two elephants mating and then put out food for 21 hippos to survive, breed again and be part of this incredible eco-system. Who am I ? A woman who is living her childhood dream.