(PHOTO ABOVE: night vision photography reveals hippo grazing on trucked-in food)
Conservationist Karen Paolillo takes a deep breath and opens the screen door to her cottage nestled along the Turgwe River at the Save Valley Conservancy in Zimbabwe. She looks down to see that the screen has been ripped again, vandalized during the night by Bella the baboon who is constantly trying to get into the house which she and her husband Jean-Roger built with their own hands. It’s breakfast time here, not for Karen, but for the many animals she hopes to keep alive in a once-green landscape that is quickly turning to dust.
Very low rainfall has created a localized drought along this section of the river and essential grasses are nearly gone now. The vegetation isn’t expected to return until December, so Karen has two choices. She can either find a way to feed the herds of hippos and other grazers who live in this area or she can witness the starvation of the animals she’s spent decades trying to protect.
Through land invasions, violent uprisings, several bouts of malaria and times when she had little to eat herself, Karen has stood among the wildlife here as their sole champion in a land where animals are valued not for their beauty but for the price they can fetch by wealthy hunters who fly in, usually from America, to claim their ‘prize’. Wildlife is a commodity to so much of the human community here, but to Karen, they mean so much more.
“Since I first formed the Turgwe Hippo Trust nearly 20 years ago, 48 hippo calves have been born,” explains Karen, who can identify each individual and knows them by name. The land is also home to thousands of lions, wildebeest, buffalo, elephants and more in the 3,000 square kilometer refuge.
Karen remembers her early days here well, as she protected the herd during an extreme drought in which the river dried up entirely. By pounding on doors and begging for help to conservation groups worldwide, she was able to gather enough funds to excavate a large cement basin and to fill it with water to allow the hippos to submerge and all the animals to drink. And with a blend of hay and horse cubes, she fed the grazers here, and remarkably, hippo calves were even born during the drought.
Now here we are again, and there is a small question mark over this second mission. Though the water basin is still intact and ready to supply hydration to the animals here, the cost of hay and a broken down vehicle provide the recipe for their biggest test of faith yet.
“She has finally given up the ghost,” says Karen of the used Land Rover that was generously donated to the trust by the Summerlee Foundation 14 years ago. “She has helped us remove over 11,000 snares in our patrols in the bush to combat poaching. She has pulled the sand pump to the river in order for us to dig up silted pools and repair natural pools for the hippos. She has carted wood and rocks for building projects. She has transported children to the hippos as well as taken our volunteers around the bush for various jobs that they are involved in. But now at the crucial time when I begin feeding the animals, I have no vehicle. I can feed the hippos closest to home with wheel barrows but that will not be the case for the hippos further away.”
The Harmony Fund, a small charity devoted to helping ‘underdog’ animal rescue teams across the planet, has set up a platform for people to help keep the animals alive during this drought. To learn more or to get involved, click here.