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On Drug Lords and Hippos

on July 2, 2014

We are all familiar with one of Africa’s most iconic animals; the noble hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius). The hippopotamus (or hippo) is a large, aquatic, herbivorous mammal that lives in the waterways of sub-Saharan Africa, however, for the last couple of decades, these animals have embarked on a peculiar experiment and have begun to colonise some of the lakes and rivers of Colombia in South America.

A black and white portrait of Pablo Escobar.

Pablo Escobar was a Colombian drug lord who used his extraordinary wealth to build his own private zoo.

This bizarre story starts with the exploits of one man in the 1980s: Pablo Escobar was a notorious Colombian drug lord who trafficked cocaine and built a crime empire that earned him the title of world’s wealthiest criminal. In the 1980s, Escobar’s cartel controlled 80% of the world’s cocaine industry and he managed to acquire US$30 billion in the process. So where does a billionaire drug lord make his home? Well, in a sprawling, luxurious, palatial estate of course: Escobar built for himself the sprawling Hacienda Nápoles; a 20km2 ranch containing everything from a private airport, to a bullring, to a dinosaur themed playground, but the most important part (for this story) is the zoo. The Hacienda Nápoles zoo contained a huge variety of exotic creatures, smuggled into Colombia from all over the world, many from Africa, including a small herd of 4 hippos.

So what happens next? Well, in 1993, Pablo Escobar was killed in a gun battle with Colombian police leaving the future of his ill-gained property uncertain. The next battle was a legal one, over who was responsible for the sprawling ranch in Antioquia (a region of rural Colombia); Escobar’s family fought with the government for many years over custody, but in the meantime, the hacienda was neglected and fell into disrepair. Thankfully, most of the resident animals of Escobar’s zoo were relocated to zoos in and out of Colombia where they could be cared for properly, but the hippos were left behind (no-one is particularly eager to take on a group of 2 tonne adult hippos). The hippo habitat at the hacienda is, thankfully, quite suited to the animals and they were happy to reside there while the rest of the zoo was slowly reclaimed by the forest.

The story gets interesting again a whole 14 years later in 2007 when local farmers and fishermen in the region began contacting the government’s environmental department reporting encounters with strange animals in Antioquia’s rivers and lakes. As I’m sure you’ve already guessed, these strange animals were Escobar’s hippos. It turns out that the hippo’s lake at Hacienda Nápoles was only separated from the waters beyond by a flimsy fence that was no match for a hefty hippo and adventurous individuals had pushed past the fence and explored the lush waterways beyond, in particular the Río Magdalena (Magdalena river).

Hippos

The hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius) is native to sub-Saharan Africa, but has been introduced to South America.
Photo Credits.

Colombia turned out to be an ideal place for displaced hippos to prosper, especially the Antioquia region where a tropical climate keeps things warm and wet, and the Magdalena river system provides an ideal habitat due to its shallow and slow moving waters. Most of the regions in Africa from where hippos originate are annually subjected to extended dry periods where hippopotamus populations are forced to battle for survival until the rains return and the rivers swell once more; this is not the case in their new South American home and the Colombian hippos are free to frolic all year round. And ‘frolic‘ they did; Escobar originally smuggled 4 hippos into his zoo (3 females and 1 male) and in new ideal conditions, without adequate management, that population exploded and now there are estimated to be as many as 60 individuals in the area! The original male hippo, named El Viejo (The Old Man) produced several sons who would have been driven away from their maternal group when they reached sexual maturity which triggered their exodus from the zoo, out into the wild.

The hippos have expanded their kingdom quite extensively and there have been sightings as far as 250km away from the zoo. Encounters between local people and the animals has been becoming increasingly common; the region is very sparsely populated but those who live there are predominantly farmers and fishermen. The encounters usually take place on or around the water, but sometimes at night, when the animals come onto land to feed (often on farmers’ crops). We know that hippos can be extremely dangerous animals, one of the most dangerous animals on Earth, and certainly the most dangerous mammal, killing thousands of people every year in Africa, however, fortunately there have yet to be any deaths or serious injuries relating to the Colombian hippos, but it is perhaps just a matter of time. As encounters become more and more intimate, the odds of a deadly conflict increase and there are already reports of baby hippos being brought into homes and children swimming in ponds inhabited by the notoriously grumpy creatures.

The Open Mouth of a Hippo

Hippos use their formidable canines to attack rivals and threats. They are the most dangerous mammals on Earth.
Photo Credits.

So what is the future for these alien animals? That is a complicated question that has many answers. The hippos pose a potential safety risk to local people and threaten regional crops and livestock, but there is also an ecological risk; the hippopotamus does not belong in South America and the population is growing wildly out of control. Everyone involved agrees that something needs to be done, but no-one can seem to agree what is the best course of action. The one thing that is certain is that they can’t go back to the wild in Africa due to disease transmission risks, but there are several other proposed ideas:

  • A dedicated wildlife reserve should be created to house all of the animals once they have been rounded up.

  • All of the males should be identified and castrated so that the population will not grow any further, and eventually die off.

  • The animals should be hunted for food for the local people (apparently hippo tastes remarkably like pork).

  • A full scale culling operation should be used.

  • Every hippo should be captured and relocated to zoos.

Unfortunately, Colombia does not have the finance or resources for many of these options, and there are also serious ethical concerns on how to treat the animals.

Pablo Escobar has left a strange and controversial legacy in Colombia; to many he is a violent, drug dealing, criminal gangster who destabilised the region and caused death and corruption, to others he is a ‘Robin Hood’ character who battled a corrupt government and gave generously to poor people, personally funding schools and hospitals. The hippopotamus population he has left behind in his country is as fascinating and controversial as the man himself.

Colombia has the highest number of terrestrial mammal species of any country in the world and now hippos can join the list, at least until someone can figure out what to do with them!

Much love,

-Nick

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4 responses to “On Drug Lords and Hippos

  1. larryalyons says:

    Very interesting story.

    • Wildlife TV says:

      Yes, very. Such a bizarre series of events.
      Unfortunately, although it seems humourous at first, it is increasingly looking like it could become an ecological disaster. Hopefully the powers that be will manage to the find the resources to make things right.
      -Nick

  2. I saw the link to your Blog at Reddit. Great job. Running a blog is a lot of work! Who would have though someone would have collected a bunch of hippos…?

    Keep up the great work!

    • Wildlife TV says:

      Thank you very much! I’m glad you enjoyed the story; it definitely is a crazy one!
      I will certainly keep up the good work; we’ve got lots of plans for things in the future.
      Cheers,
      -Nick

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