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Colombia Floats New Strategy for Escobar’s Hippos: Ship Them Abroad

Since the drug lord’s imported hippos escaped after his death in 1993, the government has repeatedly failed to tame the booming population

The first time a hippo emerged from the trees, waddled cumbersomely across the grass and slid down the river bank into the murky brown waters of the Cocorná River, the fishermen in Las Angelitas froze in awe.

Pablo Escobar’s zoo had four illegally imported hippos. The feral herd now numbers about 80.

“We’d heard rumours of these hippos and seen footprints downriver but as we’ve never been to a zoo we’d never seen an animal like that in real life,” says Franki de Jesús Zapata Ciron. “An animal all the way from Africa, here!? It seemed curious and beautiful.” Local families stopped working and gathered to gaze at the three-tonne beast, Zapata recalls.

But like previous chapters of Colombia’s 30-year saga with Pablo Escobar’s hippos, what started as a curious and exotic experiment eventually became a plague and source of division.

The hippo that sauntered into the river that day is one of scores that can be traced back to the drug lord, who imported four of the giant mammals from Africa to join the giraffes, camels, ostriches and other exotic animals in the menagerie at his lavish Hacienda Nápoles estate in the 1980s.

Since the hippos escaped after the capo’s death in 1993, the government has repeatedly failed to tame the booming population who have made the Magdalena River basin their new home.https://interactive.guim.co.uk/uploader/embed/2023/03/archive-zip/giv-13425fWmVOLvMy9Dz/

It tried culling the animals in 2009 but had to stop after a graphic photo caused national outrage. It continues to sterilise the hippos, but they are breeding faster than local experts can find, catch and castrate them.

Now the regional government wants to try a new strategy. Like Escobar’s cocaine, they hope Pablo’s pets can be shipped abroad. The government of Antioquia state in north-west Colombia says it is negotiating with a park in India, where it plans to send 60 of the beasts, and a sanctuary in Mexico, where it wants to ship 10.

“It would be a great relief,” Zapata says from the porch of his riverside wooden house by the river. “Please, if other countries can help, take them all.”

A warning sign for hippos is seen near Hacienda Nápoles park.
A warning sign for hippos is seen near Hacienda Nápoles park. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The first two hippos that made their homes in Las Angelitas in 2016 were largely peaceful but a year later the pair had their first calf and quickly became territorial and aggressive.

Now eight hippos live nearby, and the local community has had to learn ways to avoid deadly confrontations. They avoid fishing in the same area if the hippos are around and leave a light on outside at night to stop them tipping their boats over or making unwanted house visits.

But as the population grows its impact is increasingly difficult to manage. Metre-wide muddy trenches in the grassy riverbank less than a hundred metres from Zapata’s family home mark where the hippos regularly slide into the waters to cool off.

“Often we simply can’t go out at night to fish any more as it’s too dangerous and there is less to catch as the hippos scare them away,” he says.

Just 10 miles west of Las Angelitas, where the Cocorná river meets the Magdalena, residents have more affection for the giant mammals. “Everyone here is a bit afraid of them and we know they are a social problem,” says Noraldo Garzón, who runs the local shop in Estación Cocorná. “But if you were to ask people here if they want to get rid of them tomorrow, no way. They are a very endearing species and the people here have grown to like them.”

Franki de Jesús Zapata Ciron.
Fisherman Franki de Jesús Zapata Ciron: ‘An animal all the way from Africa, here!? It seemed curious and beautiful.’ Photograph: Luke Taylor

With its nondescript houses, blaring reggaeton and humid climate, little distinguishes Estación Cocorná from other Colombian riverside settlements – besides its colourful statue of a fisherman and his dog on a boat, a monument to the village’s history of fishing.

But now the community has a new industry that is easier and more lucrative: hippo tourism. “We don’t want them to be sterilised or killed,” says 38-year-old Álvaro Díaz, a fisherman repairing his boat who also charges tourists to see the animals. “We’ve learnt how to cohabit with the hippopotamus and can read their body language so we know when they’re angry and want to be left alone.

“And besides, they were born here. They’re Colombians too now.”

Cocorná’s location helps explain the contrasting opinions. It is far enough away from the bulky beasts that residents do not come into direct contact with them but close enough that they can make a quick buck from ferrying tourists upriver on boats.

But such harmonious coexistence is likely to change soon, biologists predict. From the original four hippos that escaped from Escobar’s country estate about 130 exist today – the largest population outside of Africa. With no crocodiles, lions or any other African predators to keep them in check their population will keep growing exponentially. One study estimated that by 2034 the hippos will number 1,400.

“Several censuses have been conducted in recent years and every time their populations exceed our predictions,” says Jorge Moreno-Bernal, a biologist at Universidad del Norte and co-author of the study. “It’s paradise out there for them.”

Studies of their environmental impact have warned that the invasive species are damaging the ecosystem in the Magdalena – the largest river in one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. Each hippo eats about 40kg of grass a night meaning their excrement alone is poisoning the water, killing fish and jeopardising the river’s rich biodiversity. At risk are myriad endemic or endangered species such as the West Indian manateeNeotropical otter and spectacled caiman.

The hippos are also increasingly coming into conflict with the local people and hippo attacks have become more common in recent years.

Luis Enrique, 46, was collecting water at a nearby farm in 2020 when he heard what he thought was a herd of cattle running towards him. It turned out to be a cantankerous male hippopotamus that broke his ribs and right leg, leaving him unconscious for three days and hospitalised for more than a month.

With their bulbous frame and tiny legs, the hippos may seem ungainly, but they can run at speeds of 30mph (48km/h).

Hippos in the lagoon at Hacienda Nápoles park.
Hippos in the lagoon at Hacienda Nápoles park. Photograph: Fernando Vergara/AP

Enrique, who walks with crutches, says he was unable to discuss the animals as he did not want to be involved in the politics and local division that they have created.

Experts studying the hippo invasion say the plan to ship the animals abroad will probably be the latest to fail. When foreign hunters were requested by the local environmental agency to killed “Pepe” in 2009, a photo of soldiers posing with the giant grey carcass caused outcry and forced the government to U-turn. Efforts to sterilise the animals have proved slow, dangerous and costly at about £7,000 per animal. Sometimes the darts do not pierce the skin and on occasion the tranquilliser is ineffective, while too high a dose could kill the animals.

Exporting hippopotamus would probably mean having to capture them, perform blood tests for diseases, sterilising them, and then sending them overseas in custom-made crates via a caravan of helicopters after a quarantine period, says Gina Paola Serna, a biologist tasked with sterilising the animals.

“It’s not realistic. It’s just another way to avoid taking the unpopular but necessary decision to cull them,” Moreno-Bernal says.

A few hippos were moved to a local zoo in the past but the operation was almost abandoned at the last minute because the animals were too heavy to transport, he added.

Though exporting the hippos alone is not a solution it could be useful alongside other strategies such as sterilisation, David Echeverri López, a spokesman for Cornare, the local environmental agency that would run the operation, says.

“We have to live in conflict with these animals as we also live from the river, but the anxiety it brings is tough”

Alvaro Molinas

For the fishermen in Las Angelitas, sterilisation would be preferred but at this stage they say that if killing the animals is necessary they would support it. “The kids play football just there,” says one resident, pointing at a patch of grass next to her house. “It’s a miracle they haven’t thrown a rock at them or something.”

At a recent meeting of the local fishing association several members said if the state remained unable to deal with the problem the local community might have to take matters into their own hands. Rumours abound that they already have – and that hippo tastes just like grilled pork.

A kilometre downriver from Zapata’s house, fisherman Alvaro Molinas recalls an unexpected evening encounter with one of the creatures when a female emerged from the water next to his canoe. He split an oar in two in the scuffle but could have lost more if he were on land. “We have to live in conflict with these animals as we also live from the river, but the anxiety it brings is tough,” he says.

Zapata fears there is no real option but to continue living with Escobar’s legacy.

“I’ve asked the local government if they will support me if I lose a limb or my boat is damaged by the hippos but they have no answer. Yet if we shoot one they will be here immediately and we’ll be thrown in prison. What are we supposed to do?”

Source: The Guardian