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May Wilkerson May Wilkerson

Colombia Terrorized by Dead Drug Lord’s Hippos


At his peak, infamous and wealthy cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar bought a zoo. Decades after his death, his former pets are menacing the Colombian countryside.

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Hippos in Colombia

Hippos are not as benign as they seem. Photo via Shutterstock.

How did Colombia’s drug war lead to an outbreak of wild hippos? In 1978, Pablo Escobar, one of the wealthiest drug criminals in history (estimated to be worth $3 billion) built a luxury estate Hacienda Nápoles, about 200 miles north of Bogotá. Apparently an animal lover, he illegally smuggled in various species of exotic animals, including elephants, giraffes and four hippos: three females and a male.

After Escobar was killed by police in 1993, the government expropriated his land and transformed the estate, oddly, in to a “family-friendly” animal theme park. The illegally-obtained animals were dispersed to zoos around the country. But the hippos, who had been allowed to roam free in nearby rivers, were left behind. The creatures are native to Africa, where droughts prevent hippo overpopulation; but in the lush wilds of Colombia, they reproduced with wild abandon.

A decade-and-a-half after Escobar’s death, local villagers reported coming across a peculiar animal with “small ears and a really big mouth” that they had never seen before. ”The fishermen, they were all saying, ‘How come there’s a hippo here?’” Carlos Valderrama, from an environmental charity, tells the BBC. ”We started asking around and of course they were all coming from Hacienda Napoles. Everything happened because of the whim of a villain.”

Local environmentalists estimate there are now as many as 50-60 hippos dwelling in and around the estate—possibly more. The problem is, despite their cute little ears and big “smiles,” hippos are not friendly at all. They are actually one of the world’s deadliest animals—killing about 500 people a year (that’s five times more than are killed by lions, and 50 times more than are killed by sharks). Though the creatures have not reportedly harmed any Colombians—yet—they are known to wander into ranches, eat crops, occasionally crush cows and pose a major public risk to fishermen and others.

“We have seen that hippos are very territorial and very aggressive,” says Valderrama. “They are not a tame animal. The risk for local populations to just leave them to browse around will be huge.”

Mexican novelist Juan Pablo Villalobos says the hippos are a metaphor for Escobar’s complex, lasting legacy in Colombia. “This past is still present,” he says, “and Colombians maybe don’t know how to deal with this memory, with Pablo Escobar’s heritage. All those contradictions are still alive there, and I think now in the most absurd way—in hippos reproducing in a river.”