Anniversary of 20 years of living with the Turgwe Hippos. 1990-2010

Published : 19 Oct, 2010

On October 7th we celebrated twenty years of living at Hippo Haven with these Turgwe Hippos. The 7th is my birthday, so we felt that arriving in the Lowveld of Zimbabwe on that day was an auspicious beginning. On the 7th of October,  2010 Antoinette, Jean-Roger’s mother, died in France. There was nothing wrong with her so it was a dreadful shock.  Perhaps a sign as well?

I came to Africa in search of a dream. I wanted to work and live with wild animals. A dream that blossomed in my mind as a child while watching the movie Born Free. The story of how Joy and George Adamson hand-reared a lioness called Elsa and then helped her to move back to a natural life in the wild for her to live freely again.

The path I walked from the UK to Africa was certainly convoluted. I trained as a journalist and ended up as a casino croupier. That artificial environment was the catalyst that opened the door to Africa. Here I began searching for opportunities to do something positive for wildlife.

I was the first girl at that time in Zimbabwe who had thought of sitting the National Parks and Wildlife professional guide license exam. I qualified as a safari guide to take tourists in the bush. Those days were fun and exciting but I was working more with people than with animals.

Then life changed. Love and romance took over my personal dream. I married a good looking, intelligent French geologist, moving from Africa to Holland and finally back to Zimbabwe’s Lowveld alongside Jean-Roger in 1990.
Initially we came here through his profession as a geologist, but when the drought of 1991 occurred our lives changed.
I stepped in with the idea of trying to save the hippos living literally on our doorstep, or should I say camp step! We lived under canvas, our bedroom open plan overlooking the Turgwe River. In those days it was idyllic and in some ways a kind of paradise.

Through the bad years 2000 to 2006 our lives, like many others, were threatened. In our case by rifle, by bow and arrows, by mobs and thugs. Poachers initially had carte blanche to murder and destroy the animals and the forests of this wildlife Conservancy. For those first six years, the death and destruction of wildlife within this area and throughout Zimbabwe rose into many thousands of animals, and around us we were surrounded by nothing good.
Just people who invaded and took advantage of lawlessness and systematically, like white ants on wood, ate into the very life source of this country, destroying its animals, its forests, and going on to create deserts and destruction everywhere we looked.

For those of you who have adopted hippos with me for years, you will have read my old updates on those days. For new hippo supporters I will not now take you back to those years. I will say that they took their toll on our health, our emotions and our souls. It is hard to remain a positive, smiling, happy person when you are enveloped in such events. For those of you living in the First World reading of this, it is all totally unimaginable; it is the stuff one sees on the television, not in real life.

In fact, the life that we live in Africa looks great on TV and in the movies, even on my little video clips where I try mainly to capture the good things. But you have to have a certain type of personality and an inner strength to be able to face the challenges that daily beset us here.
In the First World there is a huge, huge movement of people who want to make our planet a better place, who want to help be it people or animals, or both. Just check out Face Book and Causes and you will see what I mean.
Yet I promise you that if First World had to lead this life day in, day out there would be times when they would despair, wishing that problems were more simple and not at many times matters of live and death.
Yet on the same thought the people who are trying to change our world will be able to do it, if there are enough of them speaking with a single voice. But that does not always take away the pain from us who live daily with the problems on the ground.

The Turgwe Hippos are alive today because of us, we know this. We have lost some. Natural deaths initially, which in the world of wild animals goes hand in hand with birth and to me is totally acceptable. Hippos have died, killed by other hippos; normally because they were male and they could have posed a threat to the male that killed them. Sometimes though they should not have died, as was the case of Five. Five, I wrote about in my July newsletter.

Five was a young male but his mother Blackface was the most protective and fantastic mother of all the Turgwe Hippos. She was the most aggressive towards man as she knew that man could be the predator. Five would never have been killed by another hippo if his mother had been by his side. When I found him dead in July, I knew then that my hope that my missing Blackface was alive was lost.

I had gone away for only two weeks in October of 2009. I never go away from here for longer than two nights, for shopping for food, and this time I needed that break. I had to recharge empty batteries and do some things that one cannot do from the bush. I needed the company of like-minded souls. Jean-Roger was at home, as one of us tries to always be present if the other has to go away for longer than a few days. He though, was away for just two nights and three days.

We have discovered that probably in that period Blackface was shot and killed and her body removed. Her head was probably shipped to another country to adorn some hunter’s wall. Her magnificent character, her matriarchal status within the family and her ability of protecting her son were taken by just two bullets on a chance encounter. Man’s greed for the green back and another man’s need to put my lady’s head upon his wall led to her death, and later though her not being able to protect him, her son Five was then killed.

In Africa people work with wildlife in various fields. Each line of work, if followed according to the rules of that profession, should complement each other. In an ideal world anyone following supposed conservation and protection of our natural world should all have a common goal. There should not be any confrontational stance; we should all respect each others opinions and ideas. Sadly that is an idealistic thought.

In the real world the scientists are knocked by the laymen, the laymen are knocked by the scientists, the hunter knocks the non-hunter and the antagonism between all is an open sore that festers and goes bad in the end. The harshest events that we have experienced in Africa have always been people related and often from supposed “experts” in their field of expertise.

The times that I have been verbally attacked for my stance towards animals are so numerous I cannot count them upon several people’s hands. The biggest argument that any male and the odd woman will use in Africa is that you cannot look at wildlife emotionally. Some will say that you can only use a scientific approach, others will insist on sustainable use of wildlife (read making money from an animal resource that is managed); others still will immediately get very angry and abusive if you use the word love, feelings, or emotion. All will agree that that attitude cannot work with wildlife and that one must have no feelings. If a doctor or a vet has no emotion or feelings for his patients, is he a good doctor or a good vet? These people profess to be conservationists. In the dictionary, the definition of conservation is “keep from change or decay, protection, careful management of natural resources”. Surely in order to protect and manage carefully our natural resources, one needs emotion?

My father was a vet. He was a good man and he never in his professional life agreed to put to sleep a healthy animal. He had principles. He also had emotion.

I have learnt though over these years that that is not the case in many parts of southern Africa. Here it is the loudest voice, the biggest bully, the person with the most political or financial clout, or the one behaving like a dog with a bone who will not stop chewing upon it, that wins. But wins what?

It is he that has to live with himself, and if there is a judgment day, which I am not sure of, maybe then he will pay? I know one professional hunter who lives here, who has bad dreams at night. In his nightmares he is always being chased by, guess what? Yes, animals! Sadly though most of the people around here that have absolutely no feeling for an animal, appear to have no consciousness and to them killing an elephant or an elephant calf is like cutting down a tree. They see absolutely no difference.

Revenge from me for Blackface hippo would be truly wonderful as I know that the man who killed Blackface, or should I say allowed her to be shot, is one of two men. Soon we hope to know exactly which one it was. Yes the hurt person inside of me, the one who has studied and watched Lady Blackface for the last twenty years, would love to hunt that specific man, like he hunts animals.
To make him run, shine a bright light on him at night and make him freeze in fear where he stands, make him hide and fear the power of the rifle and then to shoot him twice to make sure that he is dead. Then skin him, cut him up and stick his head upon a wall.
Sadly if I did that I would firstly be classified as insane, and then I would spend the rest of my life in prison. It is alright in our enlightened, spiritually aware world for man to still hunt animals and to pay to hunt them, but not for man or in my case woman to hunt man. So….

A few years back a member of this Conservancy came to my home and threatened me verbally. Why? I had had the audacity to speak out against elephant culling, which they wished to begin doing here to manage the elephants in this Conservancy. I had taken it upon myself to write one e-mail to one person in the UK, a lady who is not in any high position but who had some contacts in the wildlife world. I had asked her if there was any way or if she had any suggestions as to how we could stop this happening. Somehow that specific e-mail came back into his hands as he was carrying a copy of it!!!

Jean-Roger and I believe that the main reason the culling of elephants continues in southern Africa is because it is the easiest route to follow, the least complicated and the cheapest. To shoot a family of elephants they first bring in a spotter plane, which circles the area looking for a small herd. The elephants bunch up into their small group, the babies in the middle so they can protect them. The men come in on foot and aim for the matriarch: the chief shooter has to put her down first. They know that if they get her down the others will mill around without direction from their leader and then it is easy to pick them off in a very quick time; a few short minutes are normally sufficient.
Any babies are shot at the end, after they have seen their family murdered, or they can be caught and later sold to a zoo or to elephant trainers for elephant back safaris. Here I believe they shoot the calves as the “whole thing of keeping calves alive to sell and make some money out of them is too emotional an issue. It is not worth it.” (This is an actual quote).

Other ways of managing elephants costs time, money, effort, a lot of effort. A lot of research is necessary in order to define the routes that can be chosen. The bullet is always the easiest route and there are those that queue up to ‘smoke elephants’ as it is called here. For the experience, they say!!!! Most of the young “apprentice hunters” literally beg to be allowed to take part in a cull for the experience and the comradeship!

When that member threatened me, I was told: “If you continue to pursue this route the hippos will suffer”. These hippos are not mine as such; they don’t actually belong to anybody on the ground, but in the politics of wildlife there is always someone who claims they are his or hers.

I call them my hippos, but it is just a word. They are wild animals that I protect. Sadly though, the people who manage these areas can kill them, can hunt them, and can persecute them away from Hippo Haven. This, they proved with Blackface, and I am sure now with others in the past. Before, I had always given them the benefit of doubt.

There have been incidents in the last twenty years, when I have spent a lot of time trying to locate a missing hippo. I have felt that they were alive, or maybe I just wanted to believe that the hunters did respect what I have done here. I have kept my thoughts inside of me, spoken in private to those I trust, but my God the death of Blackface makes a mockery of my thoughts.

The “owners” have mentioned that I do a “good job” to others but is that their smokescreen? In the tourist years on average around 500 to 1000 people each year visited Hippo Haven for free. They were the clients of the hunters, then mainly photographic safari clients. For in those days many safari outfits had tourism, not just hunting. When Zimbabwe started receiving bad press we lost the tourists. I would spend a morning or an afternoon with those safari clients. If I was lucky they would donate to the Trust or purchase merchandise I sold then on behalf of the Trust. Or they would adopt a hippo, which is a wonderful way for people to help Africa’s wildlife.

I did this to prove to the “owners” that people would get as much pleasure from photographing hippos and hearing about the Trust, as they would going on game drives and meeting the other animals. My visitors’ book speaks for itself and all without exception said the visit to Hippo Haven was the highlight of their safari. Many people have gone on to do things in the wildlife world themselves, saying how coming here inspired them.

For the last ten years our presence here at Hippo Haven has not only kept the hippos alive, but has saved the lives of countless animals in the area. This has been achieved initially through our own personal patrolling, and now ourselves and two game scouts who are on loan from one of the safari set-ups. We were allocated the scouts after the third attempt on our lives, when my husband was accused of murder when supposedly one of the hippos killed a poacher. Basically at that time it was an incident heavily skewed by the politics of the moment.
The scouts we have here now tend to work more in the areas further afield, so that we can concentrate on the grazing lands for the hippos and other animals in our area.

So twenty years down the line and where are we?
Well we have a lot of fantastic people in other countries supporting the Trust. In many cases they have supported these Turgwe Hippos for many years. Most of them are just people like you or I. They are not corporations, companies or multi nationals. We are small and it is the normal people out there that I communicate with. We are not in the league of a large animal charity and actually do not want to be. The smaller you are the more you can control the actual movement of funds on the ground. Trouble is though, when emergencies occur you have to, again and again, ask for help from your same loyal supporters and that is not fair.

The hippos, what of them? Well every year they have pools of water to live in, again thanks to us. We maintain their pools, either hiring a front end loader to dig channels, or through weekly digging of the river by hand in the dry season. If we had not done this for the last several years there would be no hippo pools in this area. All would have silted up and no pools mean no hippos.

There is one weir upstream where a group of hippos would have survived in without us, but without us the incidence of poaching in that area would have definitely increased. Plus only one bull could have lived there; the other would not have been able to.

We maintain the weir wall in the one pool at Hippo Haven. We also have our back up pans, which we continue to maintain and which are used by the young male hippos that leave the families. We have our sand pump, which involves hard physical work for my husband in the river itself, but it works. After all, he designed it!

Every year we remove snares, sometimes over 1000 in a year like in the bad years, and sometimes only in the hundreds. But those snares we uplifted did not kill an animal and we destroy them once we have taken them out of the bush.

Grazing for the hippos we monitor. We cut fireguards every year since the illegal settlers have moved in, so that we can stop the bush fires that they start almost every year from burning the hippos’ and other animals’ food.

The numbers of hippos here have improved. From feeding the last 13 hippos in the Turgwe River in 1992, we have had over 41 hippo calves born.

At times I have had in my study groups up to 33 animals at one time. The numbers fluctuate as the hippos are free to roam. There are two other river systems where I know some have moved into, and over the years four hippos have come back here after leaving as juveniles.
At this moment there are 20 Turgwe Hippos under our care. I am hoping for at least two or three new calves in 2011. Hippo females have a calf here every two to five years.

We see around us here at Hippo Haven and in the areas we daily patrol, bushbuck, warthog, waterbuck, kudu, sable, eland, elephant, impala, klipspringers, duiker, bush-pig, grysbok, wildebeest, zebra, painted wild dogs, lion and hyena and occasionally rhino. These animals here are alive because we are here. We know this. They are alive because the Trust exists. Without you supporting the Trust this would not be the case.

What is the worst thing about living here?
For us it is not having like-minded friends that we can pop around to and let out our thoughts and emotions. It is seeing others get rich and make money on blood and death while we struggle to survive and eat rubbish in order to keep going. There are others like us in Southern Africa, even within Zimbabwe but none of them are near us here. They, like us, do not have the time to move around for pleasure and see each other socially; the distances are too great and all of us have things we have to do on the ground. So we never get much of a chance to meet up with these like-minded souls and let our barriers down and let the pain out. So we keep going without the caring hand of such a friend in ours.

The last words of this update should be to for Blackface. So for those of you who knew her personally, or those that have supported her, here is her eulogy.

I first met her in October 1990 as a mature female of at least twenty years of age if not more. She was killed in 2009.
Normally I age the hippos’ skull but in her case her head and body had been removed. She was at least in her early forties.

When I first met Lady Blackface she made me aware that a hippo can be a formidable animal, especially if protecting the group, for Blackface was the matriarch of both family groups of hippos. In the first years of my study of these hippos, it was Blackface who changed bulls and the pools that she shared with them, more than any of the other female hippos. Yet if she was with Happy, the bull on the upstream side of Hippo Haven, she was still the dominant female in the group.

She was not the eldest but had the strongest character of all the other females. She was also the one female who proved time and time again to me how quickly a hippo can move, how tremendously powerful they are when in full charge, and how fierce they can be if they are intent on making a point.

Black Face

Black Face

Her natural behaviour was to charge a human being first and then calm down. Nine times out of ten they were not mock charges. I think I am quite right in assuming that at some stage in her past, a human or humans had upset her badly for she never forgot how dangerous people can be.
Blackface would actually leave the water when in full charge and many a time she put Jean-Roger or me up the nearest tree, which we climbed in a hurry to avoid coming to harm at the end of her formidable mouth. She would often get a kind of malevolent look in her eyes and then would charge without even a snort of warning.

I had heard stories that one man, who once lived about one kilometer from our camp before we came here, had tried to capture a hippo calf in order to sell it to somebody who wanted a hippo.
Apparently he managed somehow to catch it with a noose, but the mother of that calf took umbrage and practically removed that man from our earth. He saved himself by also climbing a tree and fortunately the calf managed to untangle itself and rejoin its mother.

Perhaps it had been Blackface, for she was old enough to have been that female.
Or maybe time and time again she had seen one of her offspring or relatives shot, and remembered what it was like to have an offspring killed.
Before we lived here the hippos in the Turgwe River were sport hunted.

Silas, the African who works with us, was born in a hut next to Hippo Haven and he remembers at least five hippos being hunted for sport while he was growing up.
Whatever had happened in her past, Blackface never forgot.

I had a special relationship with the initial dominant bull “Bob” who lived here from the day we arrived and died naturally in 2003, killed by another male hippo.
Bob at first also charged me regularly and was very assertive and aggressive, but with time and patience on my side, and with love as well, he eventually became one of the most amazing of all the Turgwe hippos, in terms of accepting me as part of them. He would perform normal hippo behaviour with me literally in his face, feet from wherever and whatever he was up to.

Blackface was different. She never lost her attitude, even after I had spent nineteen years with her. She still saw me as a threat and although we had a kind of understanding, I never took her lightly and never overstepped that point of no return. Even so, occasionally she would catch me out and charge me just for the hell of it, for I am sure she had a sense of humour.

As a mother, she was the best. She only had female calves in all the years I spent with her until her last calf Five. He was born in December 2004, the fifth calf born that year and her first and only son that I witnessed her give birth to. They are still together now, just not where I can personally see them yet.

Blackface’s favourite companion was Bob, and although she joined Happy and later Tembia his son on a couple of occasions, she spent her last years with Robin, but she always preferred Bob. The two of them could often be found sleeping together side by side on the sandbank, and in the water she was his constant companion.

Blackface charging

Blackface charging

Blackface, like her name suggests, was a black hippo, of which there have been a few here. She was completely dark in colour with a very black face, and only two of her calves were as black as her: Brucie, a young female who left the area, and Five who was her image in looks and probably would have had her character if he had been allowed to live.

Her only offspring who remains at Hippo Haven is Cheeky. Cheeky was born the year we moved here, in November 1990. Cheeky as a calf was as her name implies cheeky and then she became quite a calm hippo. Since her mother has been killed Cheeky has changed and has taken over the dominant position in the group with Robin the bull. She has actually charged me a couple of times and is the one now that keeps me on my toes and reminds me that hippos are faster than a human and must not be treated as domestic pets.

It is easy when you live and work with wild animals to become blasé, but you must always remember that although you may not wish them any harm, other people might not be like you and so the animal should retain its wildness. You must never try and make it feel that humans are its friends.

I love these hippos with my life, but I do not want them to ever forget that they are wild and free and must always sadly be aware that people are not always to be trusted. Luckily most animals sense those that want to hurt them and those that have no intention at all of ever hurting them. Blackface did not like the one man who may have killed her. On several occasions he came here and every time that I saw him near her she would back away from him. She knew what he was all about. The fact that he would not go anywhere near any of the hippos without his rifle speaks volumes.

Blackface will never be forgotten. I hope that all those that have supported her through the years will realize that if we had not fed the hippos back in 1992 when the drought was the worst in living memory, and if you out there had not continued to help the Trust, she would never have had the last twenty years of living as a wild and free hippo should live, in peace with her family at Hippo Haven.

She will be my focus now on the future of these hippos. She will not have been killed in vain.

Karen Paolillo, Hippo Haven, Zimbabwe November 2010.

You May Also Like…

Latest News from April 2024

Latest News from April 2024

[pdfjs-viewer url= viewer_width=1000px...


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.