Earlier this year I entered a raffle through the Turgwe Hippo Trust’s Facebook page, first prize being a 10-night stay at Hippo Haven located in the Save Valley Conservancy in Zimbabwe. Having already expressed an interest in volunteering there, needless to say I was thrilled when I actually won the first prize. So on July 14 I boarded a flight from New York City for the long trip to Harare. I have previously traveled to both East and South Africa, but this finally was the experience of Africa that I dreamed of since I was young and reading about the lives of Joy & George Adamson, Jane Goodall or Dian Fossey.
Through their hard work and dedication, Karen and Jean-Roger Paolillo have created a pocket of sanity in an utterly insane world. If you are someone who craves the experience of what it is like to actually live among wild animals in the bush, this is it. If you feel calm around the animals, they will fascinate and delight you no end. And if you are a dedicated advocate for animals as I am, this is direct action at its finest!
Hippo Haven has a healing effect on both the body and the mind. I slept deeply the first night in my cabin overlooking the Turgwe River, awaking to absolute serenity. One wall is open to the elements, covered with mesh to keep out the animals, so you are basically living outdoors. Karen took me on a morning tour of the pans that were built to save the hippos, and other animals, during the 1991/92 drought when the river dried up. Karen and Jean-Roger have been here ever since.
But first, the baboons and vervet monkeys – they are everywhere! What a wonderful sight and experience to be so near to these wild creatures. In the afternoon I sit on the shaded patio looking out at the beautiful view. I look to my right and left, and nearby baboons are doing the same, one sitting in contemplation, elbow on knee. I am so affected by this private primate moment. I remember feeling that this may be the most serene moment of my life – a feeling to be repeated in days to come. I truly grow to love these guys
My first close encounter with the hippos was a thrill; I had no idea what to expect. As we neared one of their favorite spots by the river, Karen remarks that we are so very lucky to find that both babies (BonBon and Maxie) along with Maxie’s mother Surprise and the young male Kuchek, are out of the water and we are able to sit and observe within 40 feet of them. This is a group of 9 where Robin is the dominant male and Cheeky is the matriarch. Two days later, upstream at the weir pool, Karen and I find 7 of them peacefully sleeping on the bank across from us, along with the crocodiles. As we approach, Kuchek rises but as before, there is no panic and we are able to sit quietly for over an hour in the sun, sharing in these peaceful moments. As we were about to leave, the 2 hippos that were not in sight (BonBon and her mother Tacha) emerge from the bush. We are treated to quite a show as each hippo slowly rises and enters the water, one by one. What an honor to see all this within my first few days. Only in the company of Karen Paolillo can anyone get this close to hippos as she has earned their trust.
Each morning I walked in the midst of the baboon troop with a bucket of feed held out of their reach until we get to a spot away from the house where I can spread their daily treat on the ground, all the while watching out for Vixen – a young mother who looks for the opportunity to snatch the bucket. This and feeding the Paolillo’s domestic cats are some of my fun responsibilities.
Snare patrols are a daily and important task. We walk for miles in a large circle looking for these tools set by poachers in the illegal bush-meat trade. When walking through the bush one sees how insidious these cruel wire snares are as they take on the look of branches and unsuspecting victims suffer a horrible and often slow death. As we walk, Karen points out tracks of various animals, including lion and hyena.
As the days go on, I feel so much a part of this world. Living among the baboons and monkeys, observing the hippos’ lives undisturbed in their habitat — this is truly a dream come true for me. I am awed by my good fortune. Life in Zimbabwe is very complicated and I learn a great deal about its political history and the hardships of life here. But there is so much beauty as well. I know I will never feel the same again in the unnatural urban environment I live in. The peace of being in the company of the animals and the beauty of the African landscape are restorative.
I was also privileged to meet many dedicated and brave people in Zimbabwe and am grateful for their hospitality and for taking the time and effort to figure out what foods to prepare for a vegan American! And a special thanks to Silas for picking my winning ticket.
I can still hear the hippo grunts in the nights. I can still hear the baboons and vervet monkeys running along the roof of the cottage as the days dawned. And I will forever be humbled by the gift of looking into their eyes and into their souls. Shame on the human race for thinking we are the only living beings that matter. But thanks to the Paolillos and other passionate men and women who believe otherwise, we can only hold out hope that we and the animals will survive.
“People, it appeared, were more interested in the private lives of celebrities than in the desperate fight for survival by some of the earth’s major life forms.” — Lawrence Anthony, The Last Rhinos: My Battle to Save One of the World’s Greatest Creatures.
Teresa D’Amico, August 2012