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Because Africa's scarcest natural resource is water, environmentalists say the hippo, or "river horse" (in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where poachers have devastated hippo populations), will increasingly come into conflict with people. (Frans Lanting)

Hippo Haven

An idealistic married couple defy poachers and police in strife-torn Zimbabwe to protect a threatened herd of placid pachyderms

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The Paolillos faced their most severe crisis in February 2005, when a group of Youth Brigades and two uniformed policemen appeared outside their door one morning. Shouting that Jean had killed someone, they marched him to the river. The dead man was a poacher, Jean says. “He had gone into a hippo tunnel in the reeds, and his companions said all they found of him were scraps of his clothing, blood smears and drag marks leading to the water.”

Karen speculates that the poacher must have encountered a hippo called Cheeky, who was in the reeds with a newborn: “We think Cheeky killed the poacher when he stumbled on her and the calf, and then a crocodile  found the body and dragged it into the water for a meal,” she says.

The policemen arrested and handcuffed Jean and said they were taking him to the police station, an eight-hour trek through the forest. They released him, but the charge still stands while the police investigate. He says that a mob led by a veteran guerrilla commander came to his house after the arrest and told Jean that unless he left immediately he would disappear in the bush.

Karen bristles at the retelling. “I refuse to leave the hippos,” she says.

They call the place Hippo Haven, and that pretty much sums up the Paolillos’ approach. They aren’t academic scientists. They haven’t published any articles in learned journals, and they don’t claim to be in the forefront of hippo ethology. They’re zealots, really, in a good sense of the word: they’ve thrown themselves wholeheartedly into this unlikely mission to protect a handful of vulnerable animals. Even though they might be better trained in blackjack and geology than in mammalian biology, they’ve spent so many hours with these under-studied giants that they do possess unusual hippopotamus know-how.

Watching these hippos for so many years, Karen has observed some odd behaviors. She shows me a video of hippos grooming big crocodiles, licking the crocs’ skin near the base of their tails. “I think they’re getting mineral salt from the skin of the crocodiles,” Karen suggests. She has also seen hippos tugging the prey of crocodiles, such as goats, from the reptiles’ mouths, as if to rescue them.

Hippos appear to sweat blood. Paolillo has observed the phenomenon, saying they sometimes secrete a slimy pink substance all over their bodies, particularly when they are stressed. In 2004, researchers at KeioUniversity in Japan analyzed a pigment in the hippo secretion and concluded that it may block sunlight and act as an antibiotic, hinting that the ooze might help skin injuries heal.

Like many people who take charge of wild animals, Karen has her favorites. Bob, the pod’s dominant male when Karen arrived, learned to come when she called him. “He’s the only hippo who ever did this for me,” she says. So she was astonished one day when it seemed that Bob was charging her. She was certain she would be trampled—then realized that Bob was heading for a nine-foot crocodile that was behind her and poised to grab her. “Bob chased the crocodile away,” she says.

Two years ago in February a hunting-camp guard told her that Bob was dead in the river. “My first fear was that a poacher had shot him, but then I noticed a gaping hole under his jaw from a fight with another bull. He had been gored and bled to death,” Karen remembers. “I cried [because I was] so glad that he had died as a bull hippo, in a fight over females, and not by a bullet.”

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