Advertisement
  1. Hillsborough

A Florida couple planned a dream vacation in Zimbabwe. Then a hippo attacked.

Kristen Yaldor, 37, was attacked by a hippo on her birthday when canoeing in Zimbabwe on Dec. 1. She and her husband were on vacation at Victoria Falls, as seen here in a picture taken at dinner on a stream train the night before the attack.
Published Dec. 4, 2018

TAMPA — Kristen and Ryan Yaldor planned an elaborate vacation to South Africa and Zimbabwe complete with safaris, a drum and dinner show, and a canoe trip near Victoria Falls to celebrate Kristen's 37th birthday.

What the Odessa couple didn't anticipate was the protective mother hippopotamus and her young calf hiding under the water as they floated down the Zambezi River with two tour guides.

Before they could react, the mother hippo swam under the couple's canoe and threw it into the air. Ryan was able to swim to a nearby island, but the multi-ton animal dragged Kristen under the water, its jaws snapping down on her leg and breaking her femur.

Kristen was able to escape, but it would be another hour before a medical helicopter arrived, Ryan said, and 13 more before she arrived at a hospital in South Africa. She remains in intensive care.

Hippos are notoriously aggressive animals in the water and are protective of their young.

Martine Yaldor said her daughter-in-law was lucky the animal's huge incisors missed her thigh, instead clamping her leg between its flatter grinding teeth.

"If one of those (incisor) teeth hit her femoral artery, we would probably be planning a funeral today," Martine said. "By all accounts, she was incredibly lucky."

Martine, a South Africa native, forwarded emails to the Tampa Bay Times that include Ryan's perspective and information from the CEO of the tour company, Wild Horizons. The accounts differ in their descriptions of whether Kristen followed directions to swim away from the enraged mother hippo, the tour guide's ability to call for help and the time it took to transport Kristen to a hospital equipped to treat her injuries.

"We all know there are always risks involved when you interact with wildlife," Martine said. "But the facts here are so distorted and misstated. They actually did not do anything frivolous at all."

Several news sites in Zimbabwe characterize Kristen as an American tourist who ignored recommendations and recklessly engaged with wild animals. Those news sites incorrectly identified her as Christine.

"I almost felt like they were going, 'Ha ha, here's another stupid American tourist,'" Martine said.

Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority spokesman Tinashe Farawo confirmed the attack and urged tourists to avoid contact with wild animals, according to Zimbabwe Sunday News.

Wild Horizons did not respond to a request for comment from the Times.

The trip started with a visit to Ryan's grandmother in South Africa, Martine said. Ryan has visited Africa several times, going on safari and photographing wildlife in various game parks. This was Kristen's second time traveling with him to the continent, Martine said.

The couple, who both work at PBX-Change, a phone and Internet company their family owns in Tampa, wanted to plan something for Kristen's birthday. They decided on a canoe safari down the Zambezi River. They found Wild Horizons on Viator.com, a popular travel site.

"Calm waters and stable craft make this tour beginner-friendly," the tour description says.

In an email, Ryan said the couple was never warned about the calf or unsafe conditions.

"We had no idea there was a baby," Ryan wrote Monday. "We were just told, 'Hippos ahead on the right, let's move to the left.'"

An account from Wild Horizons, as relayed by Ryan's uncle, said the guide shouted instructions for the Americans to swim to the island while he tried to distract the hippo. That's when Kristen was dragged under.

But Ryan said Kristen was thrown forward, right toward the angry animal. He also said the guide's radio and cell phone didn't work, which delayed care.

"Kristen was pulled under as soon as she hit the water," Ryan wrote. "She had no opportunity to swim to shore."

Martine criticized the tour company for not warning participants of the risks or canceling tours during unsafe conditions when animals might be more volatile, such as mating season.

"This is a very unfortunate incident that can happen in the wild with animals when we're on their territory," Martine said. "But the people that provided this opportunity weren't properly prepared...," Martine said. "They need to have the courage of convictions to say, 'Sorry, it's not safe today.'"

Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. The number of single-family homes sold in the Tampa Bay area during August rose 2.8 percent when compared with the same month last year, according to a monthly report from Florida Realtors. (Times file photo)
    The midpoint price in the bay area rose to $250,000, which is still lower than the state and national median prices.
  2. The Aldi store located on 1551 34th St N, St. Petersburg, Florida in 2018, features its updated layout. JONES, OCTAVIO   |  Tampa Bay Times
    The store will re-open after renovations on Thursday, Sept. 26
  3. The Tampa City Council was told Thursday that it had little power to prevent a medical marijuana cultivation,  processing and dispensary approved for East Tampa. ANDREW SELSKY  |  AP
    Trulieve plans to open a facility near a recovery center. State preemption prevents the city from taking action.
  4. Stay with tampabay.com for the latest news and updates. Times
    The vehicle overturned a number of times and came to rest in trees beside the highway, troopers said.
  5. Patrick Thorpe, who owns part of Marti/Colon Cemetery in West Tampa, wants to start a nonprofit group to cover the costs of burial grounds that are falling into disrepair. OCTAVIO JONES  |  Times
    Architect Patrick Thorpe is working to keep old Tampa cemeteries from falling further into disrepair.
  6. A Hillsborough County sheriff's deputy responding to a domestic violence call shot an unarmed 17-year-old along Skipper Road in north Tampa on March 26. The deputy thought the teen was pulling a gun. The teen was paralyzed and the Hillsborough County State Attorney's Office has ruled that the deputy will not face charges. OCTAVIO JONES  |  Times
    A Hillsborough deputy was cleared because he thought the boy, 17, had a gun. Records show how it happened.
  7. From left: Simone Till, Nicholas Sherwin, Molly Dashney and Ellois Hannah. (Photo courtesy Demmeri Gallon). Photo courtesy Demmeri Gallon
    The program is open to high school juniors and seniors.
  8. Woof Gang Bakery & Grooming is coming to Carrollwood this fall. [Courtesy of Woof Gang Bakery & Grooming]
    The Orlando-based franchise is a specialty retailer of pet food and supplies.
  9. Apex Performance is located at  4205 W Dr Martin Luther King Jr Blvd. (Photo courtesy of Sam Poole). Photo courtesy of Sam Poole.
    Workouts consist of a warm-up, weight lifting and cardio finisher.
  10. A still image from a 2014 video of Granville Ritchie's interrogation with Temple Terrace detectives the day after 9-year-old Felecia Williams vanished. He is now on trial for her murder. JAMAL THALJI  |  [Photo courtesy of WTVT-Ch. 13]
    Jurors watched his interrogation the day after Felecia Williams was last seen in 2014. “This situation is very complicated for me,” he told police.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement