We hear the hippos before we see them, grunting, wheezing, honking and emitting a characteristic laugh-like sound, a booming humph humph humph that shakes the leaves. Turning a corner we see the pod, 23 strong, almost submerged in the muddy stream.
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The dominant bull, all 6,000 pounds of him, swings around to face us. Hippos have poor eyesight but an excellent sense of smell, and he’s caught our scent. Karen Paolillo, an Englishwoman who has spent 15 years protecting this group of hippos in Zimbabwe, calls out to ease the animals’ alarm: “Hello, Robin. Hello, Surprise. Hello, Storm.”
She is most worried about Blackface, a cantankerous female guarding an 8- month-old calf that is nuzzled against her at the edge of the huddle. Blackface bares her enormous teeth, and Paolillo tenses. “She hates people, and she’s charged me plenty of times,” she says in a soft voice. “If she charges, you won’t get much warning, so get up the nearest tree as fast as you can.”
Paolillo, 50, lives on a wildlife conservancy 280 miles southeast of Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital. At one million acres, the Savé Valley Conservancy is Africa’s largest private wildlife park. But it’s no refuge from the political chaos that has gripped Zimbabwe for the past five years. Allies of Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, have taken over 36,000 acres near where Karen and her husband, Jean-Roger Paolillo, live and threatened to burn their house down. And Jean has been charged with murder.
Karen, who is fair-haired and delicate, came by her love of animals naturally: she was born on the outskirts of London to a veterinarian father and a mother who ran a children’s zoo. In 1975, she abandoned a career in journalism to train as a casino croupier, a trade that would allow her to travel the world. In Zimbabwe, she became a safari guide. She married Jean, a French geologist, in 1988, and joined him when he took a job with a mining company searching for gold. They found none. But when Karen learned that poachers were killing hippos near their base camp, she vowed to help the animals. She and Jean leased eight acres in Savé Valley, where they watch over the last of the Turgwe River’s 23 hippos. She knows each hippo’s temperament, social status, family history and grudges.
Robin, the dominant male, edges toward Blackface and her calf, which Karen calls “Five.” The big female lunges at him, sending plumes of water into the air and chasing him away. “Blackface is a very good mother and takes special care of her calves,” Paolillo says.
On the other side of the stream, Tacha, a young female, edges toward Storm, an 8-year-old male that Robin tolerates as long as he remains subservient. Tacha dips her face in front of Storm and begins to blow bubbles through the water, a hippo flirtation. “She’s signaling to Storm that she wants to mate with him,” whispers Paolillo. “It could mean trouble, because that’s Robin’s privilege.”
Storm faces Tacha and lowers his mouth into the water, letting Tacha know that he welcomes her advances. But Blackface maneuvers her own body between the young lovers and pushes Storm, who happens to be her grandson, to the back of the huddle. “She’s protecting him from Robin’s anger because he’d attack Storm and could kill him if he tried to mate with Tacha,” Paolillo says. As if to assert his dominance, Robin immediately mounts Tacha and mates with her.
To many, the hippo is a comical creature. In the Walt Disney cartoon Fantasia, a troupe of hippo ballerinas in tiny tutus performs gravity-defying classical dance with lecherous male alligators. But many Africans regard hippos as the continent’s most dangerous animal. Although accurate numbers are hard to come by, lore has it that hippos kill more people each year than lions, elephants, leopards, buffaloes and rhinos combined.
Hippo pods are led by dominant males, which can weigh 6,000 pounds or more. Females and most other males weigh between 3,500 and 4,500 pounds, and all live about 40 years. Bachelor males graze alone, not strong enough to defend a harem, which can include as many as 20 females. A hippopotamus (the Greek word means “river horse”) spends most of the day in the water dozing. At night hippos emerge and eat from 50 to 100 pounds of vegetation. Hippos can be testy and brutal when it comes to defending their territory and their young. Though they occasionally spar with crocodiles, a growing number of skirmishes are with humans. Hippos have trampled or gored people who strayed too near, dragged them into lakes, tipped over their boats, and bitten off their heads.