Karen Paolillo Interview with ‘Safaritalk’ – Nov 2010

Published : 20 Nov, 2010

We have been interviewed by SafariTalk and that’s what they wrote on their website : http://safaritalk.net/topic/5960-karen-paolillo-the-turgwe-hippo-trust/


The Turgwe Hippo Trust is a non-profit organisation for the protection of the Turgwe Hippos in the south east lowveld of Zimbabwe. To find out more, visit their website here: www.savethehippos.com.

Why hippos? What is it about hippos that makes you so enthusiastic about saving them, and how can you make others feel the same way?

My involvement with the Turgwe hippos occured by chance. We were living within this wildllife area, camping above the Turgwe River when in 1991 the rains did not come. I had previously, out of personal interest, carried out a census of the existing hippos living in the entire stretch of the Turgwe River within this area, a 35 kilometer stretch of river. I was surprised to find out that hippos had declined quite dramatically not only in the Turgwe, but within the lowveld as a whole in the past decade or so. At that stage this Wildlife Conservancy had not yet been formed and the owners of the different properties were mainly ranching cattle. They were nonetheless talking about removing all livestock to change the area to a purely wildlife environment, uplifting all cattle fences and amalgamating all their properties to form a large enough area to restablish the original wildllife. Their intention was to bring back the key species that had been removed when cattle were the main industry of the area: elephant, buffalo, lion, etc. as well as to continue their protection of a nucleus of white and black rhinos. The land mass was large enough and the habitat sufficiently varied, so as to suit a wide diversity of species. If managed correctly this could become a successful, innovative concept.

A year after our arrival the worst drought in living memory occurred. I realised that the hippos had no chance and approached the owners of the areas that the hippos lived in and asked if I could try to save them by feeding them in their natural habitat. This had not been done before on a long term basis, but only for short durations when hippos were kept in bomas during translocation exercises.

I found out what kind of food to feed by contacting zoos and various people in the wildllife business. I had to locate the food, which at that stage was soya bean hay for bulk and a mixture of cane tops, molasses, cotton seeds and game cubes for protein, about one ton of food each night. I personally, with the help of one African assistant, gave food to the hippos for a period of ten months, so that the last 13 hippos left in the Turgwe were alive at the end of the drought thanks to my feeding station. Two of those hippos conceived, which proved that they were healthy enough with this substitute food.

This was not the case elsewhere. Out of the 27 hippos that were in the river on our arrival, only the 13 that I fed had survived at the end of that period. I physically laid the food each night, raised the funds and with my husband’s help built them their backup water source, just before the Turgwe River completely dried up. We provided drinking troughs and monitored exactly how much an adult hippo drank, as these were the only water sources at that time in the area. We had laid a pipeline 15 kilometer-long through the bush to the nearest underground water supply. Without our intervention then, there would not have been one hippo left at the end of that horrendous drought. In addition, many other species took advantage of the feeding station and water source, and benefitted from them.

Now, after two decades of studying and living with these hippos on a daily basis, I have identified so many new and interesting behavioural traits. As they have smaller-sized family groups I am able to get to know each individual member, in many cases from birth. This allows me to capture their changes from calf, to juvenile, subadult and eventual maturity. I know who is related to whom, which bull mated which cow and so on. Basically I have been in a position to carry out an in-depth and up close study. I have become aware of what to expect from the way they move, their reaction to something by the look in their eyes, the way they carry their body and being able to predict what that position means. At one stage I had thought that perhaps this knowledge only relates to the Turgwe Hippos as I know each of them personally. But I was surprised to find, when spending time by the Kariba Lake in the north of Zimbabwe and also at Mzima Springs in Kenya, that each hippo I came across enabled me to see similar type reactions and expect the same behaviour as with the Turgwe Hippos, and actually predict that this or that would occur, and it would. I then realised that what I had been learning for all these years applied to hippos anywhere, if you knew what to look for.

Peoples’ perception of hippos is clouded by the fact that they are the biggest killers of humans in Africa. These casualities occur mostly because people do not understand basic hippo behaviour. By showing that I can get a close relationship with these hippos, while at the same time being aware of their potential danger, I hope that I can help people to understand that no matter how dangerous an animal is, it can interact with you safely if you respect them and know what their aggression threashold is.

Although on the IUCN endangered list, what are the most recently recorded numbers of Zimbabwe’s hippos – and what is the greatest threats to them in general in the country? With regard to Turgwe – what are the threats to the hippo population in the Save Valley Conservancy?

To my knowledge in 2004 IUCN conducted an overall estimate of hippo populations throughout Africa by means of a combination of questionaires as well as literature available from academia. They estimated between 125,000 and 150,000 hippos living in the wild across 29 diffferent African countries, of which in over half of those the hippo populations were on the decline. In any African country where political instabilty occurred the wildlife populations, including hippos, were affected and strongholds like the Congo have seen their hippo numbers crash.

The greatest threat for hippos within Zimbabwe is habitat loss. In addition, if elephant and rhinos cease to have viable populations within Zimbabwe due to excessive poaching and hunting of those animals, then those responsible for the loss of these two key species will turn their attention towards hippos. At this moment in time sport hunters want permission from National Parks to shoot hippos alongside female elephants for sport hunting within Parks and Safari areas for the purpose of supplying ration meat to staff, so that the shooting of said animals can be monitored. The quotas asked for hippos per annum is less than 50 for the time being, but this could also open a pandora’s box. Shooting of female elephants and hippos can only totally disrupt a family group, as elephants have a matriarchal system and with hippos often females within the family are closely related.

At a guestimate I would say there are perhaps 4,500 hippos at most within Zimbabwe at this moment in time, with the largest populations habitat being the Zambezi River, which has not been overly effected by habitat loss.

How does a donation to Turgwe directly help the hippo population of the Save Valley Conservancy? What percentage of the donated sum goes on administration, and what percentage is spent on the ground? Do you use any donations for other conservation work not associated with the hippos? How would you spend a 100 dollar donation on the ground?

Regarding your question, here I will quote you from my latest newsletter about to go up on our web site: “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.” .

There are hardly any administration costs as I am the administrator and we do not employ unnessary people. Our volunteers pay to stay here. We only employ Zimbabweans from the neighbouring communities for short term projects and for work of a more permanent nature.

How does a donation help the hippos? Well, to put it bluntly it allows us to keep them alive. Without our presence there would be no hippos in this part of the Conservancy. Where does a US$100 donation go? If I got it right now it would be put towards an outstanding debt for fuel. As I write, we owe just over US$1,800 in fuel!! Without fuel we cannot run communications as in the web site and e-mails, which are these days the lifeline for the Trust. We no longer have the overseas tourist market that used to visit the Turgwe Hippo Trust.

Without fuel we cannot move around this Conservancy in search of hippos when they leave the Turgwe and move to other areas. Without fuel we cannot utilise the Trust sand pump to remove excess silt from the river pools, and so the list goes on. The nearest place to buy goods for the Trust and supplies is no longer a two hour drive to Chiredzi but further afield, often a six hour trip either over the border to South Africa, or to the capital Harare where the cost is often double that of South Africa. Our area is no longer self sufficient as it was in the past, when one could find things closer to home. That is no longer the case in the rurual areas of Zimbabwe.

If the scouts have caught poachers then the US$ would be shared amongst them as a bonus and as an incentive for Silas who works with us. If information is gathered from locals on missing hippos or regarding poachers, we pay bonuses. Or it would be used for maintence of vehicle or generator. Without these tools we cannot continue to protect the Turgwe Hippos.

By protecting the hippos we are also protecting all the wildlife in our area, from elephants to duikers!

Does the trust have charitable status, and how can donors be assured that contributions directly benefits the hippos?

We are a non-profit making, registered Trust. All contributions directly benefit not only the hippos but all the species in our area that we are continuing to protect through our presence. As for the donors, the proof that their money has gone on the ground towards the protection of these hippos, is that after ten years of upheaval and wanton poaching in this wildlife Conservancy, not a single hippo has been lost to poachers. We have removed several thousands of wire snares set not only on hippo paths, but everywhere animals could be caught. Many animals have nonetheless been killed, but countless have been saved through the Trust’s efforts, as can be witnessed by the amount and diversity of game in our area.

What is your own conservation background, and how have you applied this when working with the hippos? How much scientific study has been done on your hippos and has it been peer reviewed? How has the knowledge you have gathered helped in the overall understanding of hippo behaviour? Are all hippos (baring the pygmy hippos) the same or are there sub-species amongst the various populations?

Intially I am British, my father a vet and mother was manageress of a small “zoo”, so I grew up aware of wild animals in captivity, but had the advantage of seeing good and bad practices in that artificial enviroment for an animal. As a child of 15 years I even joined a travelling circus during the school holidays and this too opened my eyes. I followed totally unrelated professions from journalism to croupier. My goal was to move to Africa and work with wildlife.

Eventually through being a croupier I was given the opportunity to relocate to the Victoria Falls and from then on, spent the next three years trying to find a position in working with wildlife. At that time, unlike present day, women did not follow that kind of profession and it was purely a man’s domain. I was the first woman in Zimbabwe to sit and pass the National Parks Wildllife professional Guides licence. I sat the exam alongside hunters that had worked in the bush for decades and whose knowledge of the bush and wildlife was amazing, but the academic side of the exams was not for them. I passed and some of these real knowlegeable men failed and had to re-sit the exam! At that time I did not have to shoot an elephant or a buffalo as is the procedure now for this exam. All I had to do was be employed by a professional hunter and work in the field alongside him and gain experience, then apply myself to the theoretical exams.

In every naturalist there is a scientist. If you spend twenty years of your life recording data on a species through still photographs, videos, notes, you cannot help but retain a massive amount of knowledge on that animal. In my case I insert a little bit of this knowledge into the personal newsletters I write to supporters about their individual hippos. (We have an adopt-a-hippo program, which enables people to support the hippo of their choice).

My husband has a PhD in geology and some of my best friends are biologists or ecologists and they have helped me in the past to structure my knowledge. I have given talks overseas at Veterinary Universities in the UK, at public halls, private functions and at the Ondaatje theatre of the Royal Geographic Society. These talks, I have been told, inspire others. I am sure that many young people hoping to make a career in wildlife have been encouraged by these talks.

I did it the hard way without the academic qualifications, which proves that if you are focused enough on any specific goal, it is atteinable. George Adamson, Dianne Fossey, to mention but two people who did not initially start off with any kind of scientific background, did a work that will be remembered for many years. I hope that my own knowledge on hippo behaviour will also help the animal as a species through my own publications and other people interested to follow in focussed behavioural studies.

Researchers, through the last decades, have discovered so much about elephants that man would never have accepted before. It is the same for hippos: you just need to have the interest and the eyes to see.

I will be producing a book with all the data accumulated, which will be readily available for aspiring reasearchers and organisations. I have writen my personal story, which is with an agent in the UK, but the data collection and publication are as important as the personal records, and that will be out for public record. Naturalist publications are in many cases far superior to purely scientific papers that tend to gather dust in university libraries and are used only by researchers, but are not out there for every man and woman to read. Or so my scientist husband tells me.

From your website, quote “However, the Turgwe River had dried up completely… 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.” It has been argued that the use of man made waterholes creates an unnatural environment where the wildlife loses the natural urge to migrate to other water sources, and cause damage to the environment: what is your response to this, and what was your experience with the behaviour of the remaining hippos and other wildlife? What are the threats to the Turgwe River nowadays which may not have been applicable in years gone by, which makes the hippos more vulnerable?

This area then, covered about 840,000 acres. Driving from the north boundary to the south one, it is a trip of 108 kilometers that takes two hours. In that drought the natural water sources all dried up. This area then had wildllife but was predominantly cattle ranching setups with the thought of changing over to only wildlife removing all interior fences and making one land open to all movement of wildlife, as cattle had proved to not be sustainable. The owners of the properties were looking at the original inhabitants as a manageable resource and as a business.

There was nowhere within the surrounding areas where animals could migrate to and those that possibly could, like hippos, and follow the dry river beds had huge distances to cover to find a new water source or vegetation to sustain them. This was a catastraphic drought where thousands of animals were dying within the neighbouring Gona-Rhe-Zhou National Park and obviously on any farmlands or other areas outside of the area we lived in.

This land here was in most areas covered with natural vegetation as it had hardly ever been used for farming purposes being a drought prone area. There had already been in the past human intervention for the benefit of the cattle as in artifical water sources like weirs in the rivers, etc. so that they could pump water inland to troughs.

We stepped in by designing a cemented pan, so that would have as little environmental impact as possible. Designed by Jean-Roger, the cemented pan was walled at either end to allow the hippos to be able to fully submerge and utilise as a water source. We wanted it to still be used by all animals after the drought, as a back up water source, so we built well enough to withstand time and be used over and over again if more droughts hit.

Here we are, eighteen years later, and that pan as well as another one that we built later are complementary to the river. They are well out of the river bed and the water overflow going over the walls keeps a green cover of vegetation even during our driest months, providing fodder for the other animal species. These two pans accommodate young juvenile male hippos when they iniitally are chased out of the families.

They are used by all species in our area, the elephants using more specifically the larger of the two pans. Elephants do without doubt break trees around artificial water sources that are isolated. In that the larger pan is only appoximately 500 metes from the Turgwe River. The amount of trees felled around that pan is higher than along the river where the elephants can move up and downstream, although they do have favoured resting areas where the tree cover has definitely been changed. The area of mopane trees around the pan has been quite opened up. Some of these mopane have copiced and so from one tree three are growing. This in the future will produce stunted mopane forest but still tree cover. So-called elephant damage is debatable and not a subject I wish to talk about now, as this is about hippos.

The biggest threat to the hippos at present within the Turgwe River system stems from the illegal settlers who invaded this Conservancy as from 2000. The middle as well as the western and eastern boundaries were taken over initially by a couple of hundred people. Now within this Conservancy, at certain “growth points” there are thousands of people. Here in the middle we do not have that huge population explosion. But of those people that do live here, ninety percent of them at one stage or another have been caught poaching the wildlife again and again. If people move into a designated wildlife area, be it a National Park or a wildlife Conservancy, then of course the wildlife is going to suffer. Thousands of animals within this Conservancy have been poached. The north of the Conservancy has no illegal settlers but the poachers having killed so much of the wildlife in the south now just cross over the Turgwe River into the north to continue to poach there. So in my eyes the biggest threat is poaching.

Following on from this question; what would a hippos normal behaviour be during drought conditions?

Once their grazing starts to diminish they move further and further afield in search of food. Yet they are dependant on water to drink, if not to live in. We monitored that an adult hippo drank 200 liters of water per 24 hours. We could check that as we had the only water source. A hippo can live without its water source if it can find refuge in shaded areas of vegetation or sticky mud, but without water to drink it is dead. So in a drought the food goes first and then usually the water, as was the case here. The hippos were already showing their backbones by March when I commenced feeding but they had a tiny amount of water left to drink and live in. Once their pools shrank to sizes that were too small for them to feel secure in, they moved into the adjacent riverine bush, which happens to be an island of thick jesse they could keep out of the direct rays of the sun. They do not actually like to drink dirty water. The water of the pan that they eventually ended up utilising nightly, was filled with their excrement, as it is a normal habit for hippos to defecate in water. The drinking troughs had clean water and all the hippos would drink from them rather than from the pan, with its dirty water. During the daylight hours these hippos still retired to the safety of the thick jesse bush as they felt more secure there than in an artificial pan, but every evening after feeding they would live in it for up to seven hours.

Normally hippos in drought areas will end up in huge numbers at the last water source. Every single one of them trying to survive in the mud and moisture that is left. Some will try moving on to find new areas, but if the drought is severe enough like in 1992, most of them will perish. We found 8 hippo carcasses before we began our feeding program and there were 27 hippos originally. As I fed the last thirteen, six hippos disapeared probably to die further away where we did not hear of a carcass. An animal can live a lot longer without food than without water to drink, so in most drought cases I would think that the hippos dies of thirst before dying of starvation.

What is the current situation with (so called) War Veteran land invasion in the Save Valley Conservancy, and what is your relationship with them? Have things improved in the last couple of years – and how do local communities react to the work you are conducting? What does the future hold for the Conservancy long term?

That is a hard one! The Conservancy was invaded, with approximately a quarter of the land being taken over. We are in the middle of the Conservancy with the Turgwe River running through the middle as the boundary between north and the south.

War veterans and their minions initially invaded from the east and west boundaries in the southern part of the Conservancy as well as parts of Humani Ranch, our nearest neighbours. We did not have people move into our area for a further year. When they did come to us, it was like in all invasions: aggressive and unpleasant. The initial leader of this area, Robert Mamungaere, informed us that he was now the “owner of all wildife and land around us” and that the only animal he could not kill at that time was rhino! We could remain in our small plot, but he now owned the animals. He told me I was no longer allowed to visit the hippos without his permission, as they now belonged to him.

For the next six years there was extreme poaching with snare lines of over fifty snares in one place. On Humani, which had a much higher density of game due to a huge land size as well as a very varied vegetation, they slaughtered animals in their thousands, with snare lines of up to 200 snares at one time. From a supposed 267 illegal settlers and their families moving around this middle section, at one stage there must have been over 1500 people in that area. Not so many around us, with a maximum of around 150 but just over from us on Humani, many more. They are still sub-letting the lands that they have cleared: one family moves on and rents it to another, or in the case of Mamungaere and others like him, they have several lands, or “farms” as they are called.

All of us were daily subjected to threats and to violence in different forms. Jean-Roger and I did not stop working with the hippos. I did not stop my study and because the snaring became so extreme, with me finding four strand snares on every hippo path out of the river, the two of us began anti-poaching patrols in the areas where the hippos grazed at night: an area of approximately six by four kilometers. This made us a huge target with the different factions of war veterans who were in control of the illegal settlers, as we could not be bribed or in any way corrupted, like game scouts could be, or be intimidated to stop anti-poaching. During that period we had bows and arrows pulled on us, at one stage an AK47 and a shotgun. Several times mobs came into our home (we are not fenced), and so on. One of the worst scenarios was when a mob arrived, accompanied by a very nice ZRP uniformed reserve policeman and arrested Jean-Roger. They told him he had “murdered a man and fed him to the crocodiles”. It turned out that a man was killed (to this day we are not sure). He had been a poacher with, strangly enough, a man who both of us had liked as we had employed him to work on one of the hippo projects years before the invasions. That man had been a good worker and we had rewarded him by selling him a bicycle at a greatly reduced cost. Well apparantly his brother and him were poaching and he had been killed by one of the hippos and so they used this to try and frame my husband. As I mentioned, we do not to this day even know if there really was a body, as nothing was ever found. It was all happening at a time of severe intimidation. It was worrying enough to cause me to have a cancer scare: a lump grew on my breast overnight, but thankfully it was not malignant. These kind of events had been organised by one or two war veteran ”leaders” in our area of this Conservancy.

Some of the owners in this Conservancy questioned why we, “who basically were nobody in this Conservancy in term of acreage ownership and wealth” were targetted. It was quite simple: we were getting in the way of the people around us poaching. Plus by using us as an example they hoped to influence the “big boys” to do what they wanted. They chose the wrong people as we would never have influenced any of them to back down and alter their stance. Around the end of 2008, some war veterans (actually the same leaders that had been instrumental in some of our major problems) came to see us. They said they wished to work with us, that they wanted to arrest poachers from their villages and evict them, as they wanted to benefit from the wildlife and be part of the overall conservancy scheme.

Since then we have not yet had another aggressive threat or any kind of physical violence directed at us. The poaching continues but admitedly it is far less than a few years ago. This though, could also be due to the fact that we have two extra game scouts helping us and most importantly that the poachers have moved to easier poaching grounds. We monitor our area daily and so snare lines can never be set for long. We concentrate on the areas utilised by the hippos. We cannot diversify into a full time anti-poaching unit patrolling far and wide, as our work is first and foremost to protect the Turgwe Hippos

Do you employ any local community members to help with your work, and if so, what positions do they fill?

All projects we have completed in the past have always been undertaken by employing people coming from the neighbouring communities. Since the land invasions we have stopped the education project that we had begun for local Humani school children with an aim, at a later stage, to include the communities futher afield. Humani school saw all of the illegal settlers moving their children into the classrooms and dominating the order of things. We felt it was not prudent to try and continue our project there, when the same children were throwing rocks at our vehicle when we passed them by, breaking in the process the windscreen of our pickup. We did not wish to be involved in politics. This is a project I wish to resume once there is a definite future for this Conservancy.

Volunteers that come here from overseas do not take the jobs of local people. They work alongside them and they pay to stay, which in turn helps the Trust.

Cases of poaching – what instances of poaching do you see where you are, and who is doing this? Do you offer any kind of financial rewards to locals not to poach, or to help for instance in collecting wire snares?

Poaching has been mentioned in the previous questions. We pay the game scouts bonuses for every poacher caught, every bow and arrow or weapon of any sort recovered, and in the past for every poachers’ dog they shot (the poachers use these dogs to hunt the animals). We also pay locals for information leading to poachers’ arrest or providing proof of an incident.

Rewards for locals not to poach have to be handled in a specific ways. For example, in this Conservancy rhinos are poached at an alarming rate. Therefore a reward for information leading to the recovery of rhino horns from the carcass when the animal dies of natural causes is a necessary and valuable tool. Paying to stop a person do something is not a good idea. It is better to employ a poacher as a game scout with a decent regular income. That man will know more about poaching and his fellow poachers and often can turn out to be a gem, though he needs to be monitored, as that is not always the case!

Paying to collect wire snares is not a good idea as then people, and that includes some game scouts, will actually make wire snares to bring to you for money. Those snares would not have even been in the bush but because you offer to pay for them they will then make them. People who have no income or low incomes are probably the best entrepeneurs on this planet for finding ways of making money. For example, the turquoise-coloured mosquito nets distributed by UNESCO in a bid to try and stop malaria among children became instant fishing nets instead of being used for their initial purpose!

These were at the source all donated by ordinary people overseas. This was done in good faith to help the poor people from dying from malaria. Yet if those poor people have a choice of using them immediately for fishing purposes, catching in the process hundreds upon hundreds of small fry and fish, which they can then sell and eat, or using them to prevent a possible malaria in the future, they will chose the former. Throughout the Conservancy these nets are confiscated by game scouts, who in turn receive a reward for their catch.

What have been the successes since setting up the Turgwe Hippo Trust, and what have been the failures? Likewise, what has been your happiest experiences, and what have been your disappointments?

This question is answered in a book I have written and I will let you know when it is published. Read my updates on my web site and go back over the years; that will answer it. It would take too long to answer here.

Without your efforts, in what state would the Turgwe hippo population be?

Dead! And gone.

Has your work encouraged anyone else to work to save hippos in the natural environment and if not, why do you think that is?

It is another hard question, as I am not really much in touch with what is going on out there. Up until recently we did not even have the internet and I only discovered facebook a couple of months ago, along with the vast amount of information that one can obtain through networking. I am constantly contacted by tv researchers and we have had the hippos filmed in the past and of course written about by the media, who have always been very interested in what I am doing here. For example the tv program in South Africa, 50/50, put out a very informative program about hippos. BBC Wildlife magazine gave me a centre spread to talk about Hippo Behaviour in 2007 and I am now used as one of their “experts” when it comes to hippos facts and questions. I have had many people pass through here who have gone on to further their careers in wildlife-connected spheres. My very good friend Tammie Matson being one of these, and she has climbed moutains in her chosen career as well as in all of her other abiliities. On a scientific level, sadly a lot of scientists do not recognise naturalists, but there again a lot of naturalists do not recognise scientists. That comes down to people having no tolerance for differing points of view. I have had amazingly rewarding emails, letters, photos, drawings, you name it from adults and children alike who have been touched by their visit to the Turgwe Hippos, enough to let me know about it. In some cases, like with my hippo adoptive parents (a way for the Trust to bring in an income in order to be able to run) their support has led to meeting up with some of these and forming long term, wonderful friendships. Friendships that boost one’s morale when times are exceedingly tough. Funnily enough, during the bad years it was actually those people, many of whom I have never met, who allowed me to focus and keep going here. Even now that is the case. So they help me and in return, I believe in a lot of cases, they have been given the conviction to do something worthwile themselves by meeting me and these Turgwe hippos, either virtually or in person.

Is there reasonable prospects of long term survival in you area?

Yes! Otherwise what would be the point of the last twenty years? There are easier ways to live!!!

Although the trust works to protect and nurture a small group of hippos, do you feel the increase numbers is large enough to justify such a large effort on your behalf? Is this a personal crusade driven by an emotional attachment or can you have an objective view of the work you are doing?

It never started as a personal crusade it was a life and death situation for these animals. But anybody who devotes twenty years of their life towards the conservation and protection of a specific species cannot but become emotionally involved with that species. Anybody who does not is indeed a very strange person.

So after twenty years I have become involved with these hippos and I am not ashamed to say that I love them. If that makes it a personal crusade, than so be it, but I actually believe that the knowledge that I have gained will benefit not only these hippos with my actual work here with them, but any hippos anywhere in Africa when more and more people understand these magnificent animals.

Of late, things here have been harsh for me personally for various reasons. I disagree with elephant culling as with all the information that has been discovered about elephants and their family structures I find it intensely unbelievable that culling is still an active way of removing supposed excess animals. So when you live in a “managed” wildlife area, which is a business for the people involved, and as a result of a management decision elephants are dying as you type, it is heart breaking. The people doing the actual culling are openly discussing it as a non-event over the radio, without any reaction to what they have just done, just continuing to discusss meeting up near the cull for lunch, etc. bringing along their wives for a picnic by the culling site!. The chief culler talking about “flipping the herd” and so on.

My God it is hard to hold my head up high as I actually live in this area. I remember a long time ago when living in Gabon, in West Africa. I caught a French lady at her doorstep buying a pair of elephant tusks from a scruffy African with a large bag slung over his shoulders, the tusks still had blood upon them.

I took her aside and asked her if she knew what she was doing. This was done all in what I thought was my poor French. She turned around and verbally attacked me and the gist of what she said was: “ do not critiizise me for buying ivory as you come from Zimbabwe and there you cull hundreds of elephants legally. This is but one that has died so that I can have some nice ivory.” Examples are obviously something that will always have a very strong impression on a person’s mind, live by how you wish to live.
Yet amidst this present pain, I was given two letters yesterday by Humani, our neighbours. Humani owners are the leading conservationists in this area and recently they brought a bunch of school children for several days to their setup. These 36 kids came to me to meet the hippos. I received yesterday two letters from two of these children, both of them African children. I would like to quote you a bit from both of them:

Dear Karen
Thank you so much for taking us to see your hippos in the Turgwe River. It was really an interesting topic to learn about. … Your hippos are probably the fattest, healthy looking hippos, I sometimes think how wonderful it would be to be taken care of by you, a good and caring lady, as a hippo.
Yours sincerely
Samantha Munatsirei.

The boy said:

Thank you for taking us into your house and telling us all about your hippos. I really love your house. The most exciting bit was when we saw the crocodile coming closer to the hippos I thought that we were going to see them fight.
Mangalisa Nyangulu

These kids are the future of Zimbabwe. Lead by example, if you kill and hurt animals you will teach others to want to kill and hurt them. If you teach them to respect and care for an animal then the same applies.

Many conservationists maintain that trophy hunting helps to fund wildlife conservation and also to reduce poaching by the presence of the hunters. Is it your experience? If not, why do you think this is failing?

This is a double-edged question for me to answer. Throughout my time here, my main problems have always been initiated by hunters. Not all hunters, but certain individuals. In all cases it is due to our differing outlooks on animals.

One example: It was known by all that I had a wild warthog called Arthur who had fed at my feeding station with the hippos in 1992. He had returned to our home two years later, an elderly animal, very thin and very undernourished. As so many warthogs had died in the 1992 drought, I once more fed him to increase his chance of survival so that his genes could live on.

He had come to me for help and so I gave it. For the next five years that animal would come along to our home on a regular basis for food, and he was healthy enough to meet up with females and father new piglets. He became so amazingly trusting with us at home that he would allow me to rub his stomach (he would actually roll over at the back door and have his tummy tickled). Yet he was still very much a wild fellow and we never encouraged him to come up to us when we met him in the bush.

The house was the only place where we had contact with him. One day in 1999, a paying volunteer (who later went on to work with elephants in Zimbabwe) stayed here. Every hunter who was without a companion, when hearing of new female flesh in the area obvioulsy came along to check her out. One hunter in particular, who I had actually believed was one of the ethical and decent types, did just that. She was not to his liking. The next day, on coming back home after a long walk where I had been showing her an area I wished to build a pan, Silas, the African guy who works with us, approached me with the freshly cut off leg of a warthog. He told me: “Donza has just been here. He says he just shot Arthur and here is a present for you!”

It wasn’t Arthur, but … Of course, to other hunters in the area he was a hero winding up the “bunny hugger”. For me that was the straw that began to break my back when it came to the behaviour of some of these hunters.

They also continuously over the years shoot by our home within sight of the house and property when they have thousands of acres to shoot in. Because we have a high density of animals living with us due to the rich riverine and the fact that we do not hunt, they come here for the kudu, bushbuck or waterbuck trophies.

Having said this, any form of activity by people on the ground in areas that are poached, be they hunters, non hunters, who are on foot or using their vehicles, will to some extent control poaching if the area is well patrolled. So yes, hunters and their movements within the bush can be very beneficial to finding out about the poaching in the area. It will not stop it, as poachers are very canny people and they just will be careful not to be in the areas frequented by the hunter until he moves out. A lot of hunters in poached areas do remove snares, gin traps and such like, and this is highly beneficial and commendable.

I have absolutely no fight with hunters if they are ethical, stick one hundred percent to the rules, as rules are made for a purpose, if they do not target my hippos and animals in our area out of spite and pettyness or greed. This has occurred over and over again and is a regular occurance. If the hunter gives back to nature as much as he takes out of it, then he is justified to call himself a conservationist.

I believe that if your profession is to make money out of killing and then say that you are a conservationist, then behave like our neighbour and plough most of your money back into that land and the animals; do not just hunt, fish, play and give nothing back. If as a pro hunter you have no land, then in your spare time look for snares and remove them don’t just do it with your clients. You should actively get involved in helping protect the areas that you hunt in. I then will agree that trophy hunting helps conserve the wildlife. As well, when the place you hunt is facing challenges be they political, or natural events, do not say: “Well, I might as well take everything now rather than see it go to waste”. When a young hippo bull is killed by another bull as is nature’s way of controlling numbers, don’t say: “What a waste! It is better for us to make money out of that young bull by hunting it, and cut down the number of natural kills”. That is not conservation.

Questions from Game Warden and Twaffle.

The views expressed therein are solely those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of Safaritalk.

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