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Nature & Environment

The best books on Conservation and Hippos

recommended by Karen Paolillo

Karen has been studying the hippos in Zimbabwe full-time since 1993. In this interview she talks sustainable conservation and selects five excellent books as further reading including Born Free and The Little Prince

Karen Paolillo

Karen Paolillo has been studying the Turgwe hippos in Zimbabwe since 1993. In that time 39 hippo calves have been born to the Turgwe hippo mothers. Karen spends an average of six hours a day observing the hippos and has forged a strong relationship with them. She formed the Turgwe Hippo Trust in 1994 in an effort to preserve these endangered beasts.

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Karen Paolillo

Karen Paolillo has been studying the Turgwe hippos in Zimbabwe since 1993. In that time 39 hippo calves have been born to the Turgwe hippo mothers. Karen spends an average of six hours a day observing the hippos and has forged a strong relationship with them. She formed the Turgwe Hippo Trust in 1994 in an effort to preserve these endangered beasts.

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Karen Paolillo on Twitter

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The Little Prince isn’t about wildlife or conservation, but has the book influenced the way you live or your views on conservation?

I am a person who believes in chasing your dreams, ignoring preconceived ideas and narrow-mindedness. If you focus on your goals then nothing is impossible. The Little Prince is in many ways my bible. If you watch animals or birds behaving as they were created to be, you see that verbal communication might be important but that there are so many other ways that they communicate. Modern man has in many ways lost the ability to be silent, to just listen and watch what surrounds him. So, yes, The Little Prince has influenced me in every aspect of my life, from my own emotions and how I feel inwardly, to how I like to view our planet. It is the simplicity and innocence of that little prince and his love for a flower that makes the book so special to me. That is also how I feel when watching my hippos, or, for that matter, any wild animal that has not been domesticated or commercialised by man.

What are the preconceived ideas you have to contend with in working with hippos?

I live in Southern Africa where the people on the land, be they black or white, believe in ‘sustainable utilisation’, meaning that they see animals not as individual sentient beings, but as different species to be used for the benefit of the land, and in most cases to bring financial gain to the owners of that land. Yet, once animals are looked upon commercially, you can often open a Pandora’s box that is very hard to close.

Elephants don’t have to be culled to cut down on numbers. They can be moved to areas like Mozambique that wish to bring back the elephants that originally inhabited areas of that country. They can be given contraception – there are ways of controlling elephant numbers without the gun. Every one of us who loves animals, who feels the animal and does not wish to control it, is up against a thousand others who do not feel that way, and that is probably the biggest challenge of working with wild animals in any part of the world.

Tourism is a double-edged sword if mismanaged, but with the right outlook it could be the saviour of Africa and any third world country. Tourism, more than any other industry within Zimbabwe, is what brought the country wealth and employment and helped it become the great African country it used to be.

Has that all evaporated now?

Due to the political situation since 2000, the tourists have all gone. It is picking up a little bit, but for our National Parks to continue to nurture the true inhabitants of those lands, we need the tourist market to return. Donors are not as keen to help out in African countries that have internal political pressures. They would rather go to more stable areas. Yet it is often the struggling African country that needs the most assistance, but it is left to sink into oblivion. People forget that there are those of us still here who believe in a better future and want to see the people and the animals prosper again. We need our tourists back, we need donors to support the initiatives of pro-active, forward-thinking conservationists.

When taking people to the hippos, I ask them to try to experience the real animal, not to listen to the myths and the legends and the hunters’ tales of horror and fear, and ego-related bullshit, and just look at the animal for what the animal is.

Your next two books are about lions: Joy Adamson’s Born Free and Gareth Patterson’s With My Soul Amongst Lions.

Yes. I want everyone to read about how Elsa the lioness not only returned to her own world, but in that world where she was a lioness she still had room for her human adoptive parents. It was this book that inspired me, as a 12-year-old girl, to come here and work with wild animals.

Read how Gareth Patterson had the same experiences with the lions he saved, after George Adamson [Joy’s husband] was murdered. Gareth took the cubs to try and give them the one thing that Joy and George gave back to their lions, the ability to be free as they were born to be. Read any book out there about man working with a wild animal and returning that animal to its real life, the natural world. Read anything about man or woman living with a wild animal and getting to know it as it is (not trying to change it to their way of thinking). No elephant wants a man on his back. No lion wants to walk with tourists if, at the end of his ‘lion walking with the tourists scenario’, when he is bigger, he is shot in a canned hunt. Sadly, many of the lions and cheetahs that are used to ‘walk with the tourists’ are killed or caged when they get too big.

I met my first wild lion when I initially moved to Africa and had the privilege of seeing them in the bush, in their world. George Adamson’s lions were lions that had been taken on by people who thought they were helping them, by buying them as cubs from dealers, or they were circus lions that had been rescued, or lions from lion hunts where the parent had been killed, and so on. When I stayed with George he had no lions in the camp, but there were lions he had released back into the bush. These lions would visit him and if he called them they would come to his call. One that did come in was a lion called Lucifer. He had been out there in the wild for quite some time when I arrived. George had taught Lucifer to be a lion again and then released him. George would be sleeping outside his hut on his bed, snoring loudly. I would watch Lucifer, this amazing male lion, come close to the fence and make little mewing type noises at George. Lucifer would use his paw and kind of push it against the fence as if trying to touch George. Lucifer totally related to George and yet he lived out there as a wild animal, how he was meant to be.

George wore a kikoi most of the time, a waist-high wrap-around Kenyan cloth. His hair was long and yellow and yet he spoke the Queen’s English and had the manners of an aristocrat. He was everything I hoped he would be – I had hero-worshipped him since I was 12. Eventually, at 83, he was murdered protecting one of his female guests. The poachers who had totally destroyed the Kora area killed George. The politics of wildlife can be worse than any political arena in the first world.

Is Gareth Patterson’s book very different from Born Free?

With My Soul Amongst Lions, is a very open and sad book. It tells the truth about Southern Africa and some of the policies that landowners have towards wild animals. His lions die, not from being lions, but at the hands of man. His lions are exactly what my hippos are to me. The book allows the reader to be with Gareth in his search for safety for the last of George Adamson’s lions. There is only one story that really ends up with a sort of happy ending. This book must be read by anybody who wants to read the truth about Africa, and not just look at pretty wildlife pictures. I do not know Gareth personally but I believe from his writings that his soul is clean.

Animals will always be persecuted if man does not see them as having feelings, emotions, the ability to think. Not so long ago man believed earth was flat. Man would never have believed that we could fly to distant planets. Man would never have accepted that slavery would be abolished and human rights take precedence over greed. I like to think that in my lifetime man will see into the eyes of all of nature’s beasts. Mounting a lion on a hunter’s wall would not look half as impressive if the teeth of the lion were not displayed. Most taxidermists make the animal in question look as big and as dangerous as possible when they mount it. I mean, making a giraffe look dangerous, when it’s standing stuffed in a wealthy American’s hallway, with its long eyelashes and deep dark brown eyes staring into the space of some house, must be pretty difficult, but there are many dead giraffes in such settings.

Tell me about the Dian Fossey book.

Initially Mowat approached Dian Fossey’s story as an ordinary biographer. He was given access to her most personal notes and diaries, and, as he read her own account of her life, her spirit entered his psyche. In the end, he acted more as an editor of Dian’s own words than as his own storyteller, and he says in his own foreword that her diaries and journals and the words of others who had known her became ‘as achingly familiar to me as if we were of one blood. I would be happy if we were’. He never met her in the flesh but he saw who she really was and his book is the best of any written about her. As to her death, it is thought in many circles that Europeans organised her murder, as she was not playing ball with certain organisations that had alternative ideas about looking after the mountain gorillas. The main theory is that a black man she knew was then paid to do it.

You’ve chosen a hippo book next.

Yes, Glenn Feldhake. He shows hippos as others have shown elephants and lions – with love. What many people in Africa believe is that the hippo is the most dangerous of all wild animals. People overseas are attracted to hippos on an emotional level due to their somewhat large frames – this is quite fashionable as many people have somewhat large frames these days, so they can identify and sympathise with the hippo. Yet a hippo is totally light on its feet. A human being can be quite large and yet have the lightest feet on the dance floor – well it’s the same for hippos. See a hippo bouncing along under the water as it moves along the bottom of a pool and one does not see an overlarge animal. Instead the hippo appears to glide and dance and look like a Walt Disney hippo ballerina. So their largeness is an attraction.

How did you get involved with the hippos?

Initially, I was the first woman in Zimbabwe to take and pass the National Parks hunting exam. Not to hunt but to be a professional guide. I did not have to do what all women have to do now and that is to kill an elephant or a buffalo to prove their ability at protecting a client. I just had to work for a couple of years under professional sport hunters. But safari work was not enough for me as it dealt with the tourists more than with the animal.

After meeting George [Adamson] and when having to make the decision to join him, I met my husband and my life changed. We ended up here and the hippos were on our doorstep. Our bush camp was above their home, the Turgwe river. I made a census of the Turgwe hippos and found that their numbers had declined dramatically, mainly due to their habitat shrinking, dams, crop-planting that erodes the riverbanks so that the rivers filled with sand, etc. Then, in 1991, the drought hit, the worst in living memory. I was in a position, for the first time in my life, to do something positive. I approached the owners (then animals were owned by whoever’s land they were on). I suggested that I found out how to feed hippos in the wild, and that I would find the food, feed the last hippos in the river and, hopefully, save their lives.

I did. I raised about 26,000 British pounds and with that money fed the last Turgwe hippos for ten months. My husband and I built a cemented pan (a kind of hippo swimming pool), basically 21 feet wide, six feet deep and 45 feet long, with walls to contain the pumped borehole water on both sides of the pan. I built a drinking trough and we had piping put underground to the nearest deep borehole which was over 18km away. The Turgwe river had totally dried up. At the end of this period the only hippos left alive in the Turgwe were the ones I fed. One female even conceived during the feeding program. This calf, Tembia, is now a young bull who has his own family some 5km upstream from my main hippo study group. Tembia is alive thanks to the help I received from countless strangers around the world. Some of those people are still with us today as adoptive hippo parents. I formed the Turgwe Hippo Trust in 1994 in order to continue to protect and conserve these amazing animals.

And are they dangerous?

Yes, they can kill people. Here in Africa they live in waterways, natural or man-made. They are wonderful ambassadors to those waterways, as they create food for the fish, they improve the grasses, they cut down on bushfires by how they graze and so on. One mistake most people make with them and with all of Africa’s great mammals is that they see them as large and slow. All of them are large but they are all faster than us, so people can get hurt if they play with them.

Africans living with them often accept their presence for the reasons above, but those that are not used to them (like some of the people who invaded these lands) throw rocks at them or try and snare them. If you keep chucking a rock at a potentially dangerous animal then you quite rightly may get charged and hurt. If you disrespect any animal, even a dog or a cat, you can get hurt. It is a question, more than anything, of respect. I have one hippo, Blackface, who dislikes man and is totally unpredictable, or, should I say, she is predictable – she will charge out of the water and go for you. Over the years of studying her I have learnt that she is the best mother of all the Turgwe hippos – she now has her first male calf since 1990. His name is Five – he was the fifth calf born in 2004 and will be five on 30 December this year – and Blackface at this moment has more cuts on her body than any other female hippo. One young male, Kuchek, who will turn nine next March, doesn’t want Five in the group and Blackface is taking the brunt of it all. She is magnificent. I believe Five may be her last calf as she is not a young hippo. She was the favourite female of my Bob, the dominant bull.

And you are writing your own book?

It started off initially as just the story of the hippos and how I fed them in the drought and how it all was totally successful and how then the Turgwe Hippo Trust was born. I was then told by various people to upgrade it to my own story: how an English girl followed her dream, the trials and the tribulations that brought me here, the experiences I went through to get to where I am now, how our lives, mine and my husband’s, have been threatened by rifles, bows and arrows, mobs, how we have stuck it out and, most importantly, how much my love for these hippos and those amazing people (the faceless strangers out there who have contributed via www.savethehippos.com) have kept me going through all of the shit that Zimbabwe has had in the last nine years. That is what my book is about. My agent, Euan Thorneycroft of A M Heath in London, UK, believes in my book and is looking for a publisher.

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