A Hippo Love Story

Karen Paolillo
SA Penguin
ISBN: 978-0-14-353905-6
247 pages

Karen Paolillo’s new book focuses on the lives of a small group of wild hippos, but she also provides a broader look at the lives of wildlife and people in southeastern Zimbabwe. The former is captivating and much of the latter is deeply disturbing.

In 1990, the author and her husband were stationed along the banks of the Turgwe River. Readers are introduced to the individual hippos who reside in the area. The first and dearest of them is Bob, a massive, dominant bull who initially charges after the author, bent on killing her and sending her scrambling up a tree. However, over time, they develop a relationship as he learns she is not a threat, and routinely responds to Paolillo’s voice and greetings by coming in her direction, giving a loud hippo roar. Bob is described as having saved Paolillo’s life twice when, unbeknownst to her, crocodiles were moving in to prey on her.

The book describes the political upheavals following Zimbabwe independence and how snaring of wildlife for bushmeat becomes rampant, with thousands of animals dying gruesome deaths. The snaring, and sometimes shooting, of any animal that moved continues until there are barely any animals left. The author seeks to protect not only the hippos, but also other individual wild animals she has come to know, making daily treks to collect as many snares as possible.

After helping the hippos survive a severe draught, Paolillo establishes a hippo trust in an effort to secure the animals’ long-term survival. Her devotion to the hippos is laudable and her detailed descriptions of the animals and their behaviors are fascinating (some of which, interestingly enough, contradict published literature). While I found a number of the personal details a bit distracting, the book provides an enlightening view into the lives of Zimbabwe’s hippos. 

By Cathy Liss