2013 was a pretty harsh year for the hippos and other wildlife in our area. A localized drought, stemming from rains that fell in one large amount and then petered out, saw us without any grazing for the animals dependant on the Lowveld grasses. Browse on the trees was sufficient for elephant, kudu and giraffe but for a hippo there just was not enough food to last the year. I had not actually fed the hippos in their natural habitat on a long term basis for over two decades, but I knew by May that I would have to make the momentous decision to try and feed them again. I worked out that by August they would need daily feeding, but the main problem would be twofold: could I find the food in a country where there are now hardly any viable farming areas left, and would I be able to raise the funds to feed 21 hippos?
Well, since forming this Trust back in 1994 I have never given up when faced with any kind of crisis and I was not going to do so now. I sent emails to any contacts I could think of in Zimbabwe and finally found a farmer in the Marondera area. He was growing Rhodes grass on the tiny plot of farmland he was still allowed to operate on. He agreed to reserve me 3000 bales of hay. Another contact a friend Theresa Warth in the Lowveld, told me about a cattle drought survival ration that could be mixed with the hay and would be good to give that necessary boost of proteins for the hippos. Added to this mixture we added horse cubes, which are high in protein. Having fed the hippos way back in 1993 I knew that I could not just feed protein, as the objective is to fill the Hippos’ large frames but make sure that they also have sufficient protein in the food. I hit upon an average of 2 bales of hay per hippo (around 30kg), 5kg of survival ration and 2kg of horse cubes per adult animal.
To raise the funds would be daunting in a time when the recession seems to have hit most of the World’s countries. While all this planning was taking place, disaster hit. Our only four by four drive vehicle, a twenty year old rebuilt Land Rover finally gave up the ghost and could not be driven without a lot of problems.
So I knew that using only wheelbarrows we would only be able to feed the hippos close to home at Hippo Haven, Robin’s family of 11 hippos. Tembia’s family of 7 and Mystery, Chubby and Monty would not be fed. This was not an option.
That is when an amazing lady in the USA, called Laura Simpson, stepped in. She used to be the chairperson of WSPA (World Society for the Protection of Animals) and in that capacity had already come to the assistance of the Trust. Laura was already helping whenever she could raise funds to help us pay the four game scouts and Silas, but she was not in a position to use her own Harmony Fund for larger amounts. She put out an appeal for the Trust with You Caring and this appeal brought in sufficient funds to allow the Trust to search for a second hand four by four vehicle.
We had a contact up in Harare, a mechanic who looked on our behalf at vehicles for sale. He finally found a Toyota Land Cruiser that he believed would fit our requirements. Just to drive to Tembia’s family, you have to go on a dirt track down into a dry river bed and up a steep rise and then along a very rocky route until you reach the Majekwe weir in the Turgwe River. No other vehicle uses this route and it is one that has to be driven with care. Not only is it pretty difficult to even turn around along the way due to the rocks and thick trees along it, but it is utilized by up to 100 elephants at one time and this too can have its disadvantages, as I would find out at a later stage.
In the meantime I needed help to feed the hippos as Jean-Roger, my husband, is very helpful when he can be, but he too has to work and he is often away for up to five weeks, working as a geologist. I was lucky that Mirinda Thorpe, an Australian girl, had agreed to come and help me out.
She came back in August accompanied this time for 2 weeks by Kerrie, her lovely mother. After Kerrie left, Mirinda thankfully remained until mid-October. Without Mirinda’s help, I would have had an amazingly hard time trying to feed three groups of hippos, even though we always had one game scout with us. None of the Africans that we employ can drive and so Mirinda often drove up to Majekwe to feed Tembia’s family. The two of us drove to Mystery and then at home I fed Robin’s family when Mirinda was up at Majekwe. We worked very well together and Mirinda was invaluable in assisting me in anything that needed to be done.
I was having a 15 ton truck and trailer bring me up to 500 bales at one time every couple of weeks. The truck was expensive to hire as it had to drive from Harare after going to Marondera to load the hay, a total of about 10 hours on the road for the driver.
On arrival at Hippo Haven myself, Mirinda, the four scouts and Silas, my assistant, would then offload all of this hay, stacking it into any available nook or cranny. As we live with over 45 Chacma baboons and 30 Vervet monkeys, it would not be possible to just leave the hay out in the open as they would wreck the stacks. We were donated four very old canvass tents by a company called Rooney’s in Harare and Jim Perry Transport kindly lent me two of their huge canvasses to cover the hay. We stashed it into my wired and caged vegetable garden, hence there were no fresh vegetables at Hippo Haven for 2013. The bales went as well into our old pet goats little brick house and as stacks covered in canvass in the yard. The result was that the baboons had nice areas to play trampoline on, but they could not actually smash up the bales of hay, which they would have done as baboons are full of mischief. It is at times like living with 45 naughty children, but I love them anyway!
So it was all go, and amidst all of this I still had to run the Trust, send daily adoptions and emails, go on snare patrols and do my own work in the house. I also had just completed writing my book
“A Hippo Love Story” and that was sent off to Penguin Publishers in South Africa who, much to my joy, in October accepted it for publication this year. A future blog will keep you updated about “A Hippo Love Story”. Publication date is set for June 2nd and it will be available to purchase on line.
The end of all of this was success, in that from July 30th until December 30th I fed all the Turgwe Hippos. Most of the money to feed them was raised thanks to the hippo supporters who either adopt a hippo or make donations to the Trust. Over 200 of the 1500 supporters kindly helped to feed these amazing animals. Laura’s appeal raised enough to buy “Miss Sunshine”, as I named the yellow Land Cruiser that we bought. She is 22 years old but in very good condition, thanks to belonging to only one man who used her for photographic safaris, but mainly as a resupply vehicle. Some of Laura’s appeal also paid for food for the hippos. Over 355 people responded to that appeal put out by Laura.
All 21 hippos survived the drought, which would not have been the case if I had not fed. I believe we could have lost at least 2 elderly hippos, Abe and Robin, as well as mothers of young calves like Surprise, Tacha and Cheeky. The calves themselves would probably have died as their mother’s milk would have dried up.
Even though it was a localized drought, there was nowhere within a fifty kilometer radius with sufficient grass and water, for all of the hippos to have naturally moved to. Our area was invaded by illegal settlers, way back in 2001 and they brought in their domestic livestock. Those cattle had eaten any grass downstream of the hippos’ pools and the pools that used to exist in those areas have long since silted up due to excess usage by the people and their cattle. There was nowhere the Turgwe Hippos could have moved to in order to survive.
So we go into 2014 on a high. The rains have fallen well in the last week and hopefully this year the lack of grazing will be a thing of the past.
I thank everyone that has contributed to the hippos’ survival, and I hope that you will all spread the word about the Turgwe Hippo Trust and these amazing animals.
Karen Paolillo, January 2014