Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar may have died in 1993, but he’s left behind an unusual legacy: a herd of hippos.
Escobar bought four of the exotic creatures from a California zoo in the 1980s after getting rich, and transferred them to his sprawling ranch, Hacienda Napoles, located midway between his hometown of Medellin and the capital, Bogotá.
The hippos — three male and one female — were part of the menagerie that Escobar, a self-styled man of the people, opened to the public on one of his estates. Buses of schoolchildren would come to gape at giraffes, elephants, the hippos, and other animals.
The hippos have since thrived in his absence. There are believed to be more than 25 hippos currently roaming around Hacienda Napoles and the surrounding countryside.
‘The whim of a villain’
When Napoles was confiscated in the early ’90s, most of the animals were sent to zoos around the country, according to the BBC. The hippos, however, remained in place. Many of the herbivores were content to stay on the grounds of Napoles as the ranch fell into disrepair.
With ample food and no predators, the herd soon grew.
“They found a creature in a river that they had never seen before, with small ears and a really big mouth,” Carlos Valderrama, of the charity Webconserva, told the BBC in 2014.
“We started asking around and of course they were all coming from Hacienda Napoles,” Valderrama went on. “Everything happened because of the whim of a villain.”
There are believed to be about 26 or 28 hippos on the grounds of Napoles now, David Echeverri, a researcher with Colombian government environmental agency Cornare, told National Geographic earlier this year.
“We also have evidence that small groups of hippos or solitary individuals have migrated through the Magdalena River to other areas, including Puerto Berrio and Boyaca,” Echeverri added.
“There may be as many as 40 hippos total in the area. Within 10 years that could grow to nearly 100, if we don’t manage them.”
The conditions in the area are well suited to hippos, but, as the BBC noted, the best indicator of how they have thrived is their sex life.
“In Africa they usually become sexually active between the ages of seven and nine for males, and nine and 11 for females, but Pablo Escobar’s hippos are becoming sexually active as young as three,” the BBC reported in mid-2014. “All the fertile females are reported to be giving birth to a calf every year.”
“They have no predators so they are more at peace than they would be in their natural habitat and they have been reproducing faster,” local vet Jairo Leon Henao told the AFP.
Valderrama told the BBC that he had seen the animals up to 155 miles away from Escobar’s ranch. Sometimes they can be seen trudging down rural roads in the area around the ranch, the AFP reported in July.
‘They are not a tame animal’
Many Colombians regard the hippos as a novelty, or as “cuddly” animals, and many people live and play in close quarters with them. But the hippos, which roam relatively unchecked throughout the countryside, pose dangers to both the population and the environment.
Hippos are territorial and can force native wildlife out of its natural habitat, Echeverri told National Geographic. He also said hippos’ waste could disrupt the ecology of Colombia’s lakes and rivers.
Hippo faeces can accelerate eutrophication, an excess of nutrients that can lead to algae blooms that deplete oxygen in the water. “We have seen some possible evidence of this in the form of dead fish,” Echeverri said.
They can also carry diseases that can kill livestock, Echeverri told AFP. “It is an invasive species and very resistant to everything,” he said.
Though there haven’t been reports of injuries to human, hippos do pose a danger to people. The average weight for males and females is about 3,000 pounds, and they can charge on land at up to 18 mph.
In Africa, where hippos are native, they are responsible for more deaths than any other wild mammal, according to the BBC.
“They are not a tame animal,” Valderrama told the BBC. “The risk for local populations to just leave them to browse around will be huge.”
‘Castrate the politicians’
Efforts to manage the herd of hippos, which can live for 60 years, have encountered numerous challenges.
Relocation initiatives have stalled. They can’t be sent back to the wild in Africa because of diseases they might carry, according to Valderrama, and there isn’t a set place inside Colombia to put them. Funds to build a reserve have not been forthcoming, as public money is limited and some experts would criticise the expense.
Castration doesn’t appear to be viable, either. Hippos are sensitive to chemicals, meaning castration would have to be done manually, which is itself problematic, as a male hippo’s testicles are “hidden” inside their bodies, Echeverri told AFP.
“If you do manage to grab a several-ton hippo before it disappears underwater,” the AFP noted in July, “you have to put it to sleep and go groping around.”
Some Colombians cooked and ate a hippo that was killed in an accident, but that has been discouraged because of health risks. One dead hippo was found to be carrying leptospirosis, which can cause meningitis, according to Valderrama.
In another incident, a hippo that had been deemed a nuisance was hunted and killed in 2009, but that sparked public backlash.
To protest the killing, 100 activists in hippo masks danced to “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” in Bogotá.
Presently, Colombian officials in charge of managing the animals have stuck to trying to keep them in place. Echeverri said in May this year that a plan to build hippo-proof walls and then castrate the contained animals was in its first stage.
Given the national and international attention the animals have gained, whatever strategy the government might pursue would probably be controversial.
“They already castrated one,” Valderrama, the vet, told the BBC in 2014. “And there are people saying, ‘Oh why do you have to castrate them? Just let them be. Castrate the politicians.'”
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