Blame Drug Lord Pablo Escobar for Colombia’s Hippopotamus Problem

Pablo Escobar had hippos in his private zoo, since the 1990s those hippos have been roaming free

Hippos swim in an artificial lake in a farm in Puerto Triunfo, Colombia, December 21, 2006. DANIEL MUNOZ/Reuters/Corbis

From 1970 to 1993, Pablo Escobar was one of the most powerful men in the global cocaine trade, says “He collaborated with other criminals to form the Medellin Cartel and eventually controlled over 80% of the cocaine shipped to the U.S.” During the boom years, Escobar used some of his wealth to built a zoo at his ranch, says William Kremer for the BBC.

He smuggled in elephants, giraffes and other exotic animals, among them four hippos - three females and one male. And with a typically grand gesture, he allowed the public to wander freely around the zoo. Buses filled with schoolchildren passed under a replica of the propeller plane that carried Escobar's first US-bound shipments of cocaine.

In the early 1990s, before his death, authorities confiscated Escobar's ranch and sent the various animals off to different zoos to live. “But not the hippos,” says the BBC. The hippos stayed, living wild in the waterways near the ranch. Over time the hippopotamus population grew and now dozens of the massive creatures inhabit the region.

Hippopotamuses are herbivores, but they're also huge and extremely territorial. No one has been killed by the hippos, yet, but the record from Africa suggests it's just a matter of time. In his story, Kremer explores the various options at hand for dealing with the invasive hippos, from shipping them off to zoos, to a castration campaign, to just letting people kill and cook them:

During experiments with electric fences a while ago, he recalls, someone misjudged the voltage and electrocuted one of the Hacienda Napoles hippos. "What did the local people do? They took him, they chopped him up, they barbecued him and they ate him!" The animal is said to have tasted similar to pork.

The BBQ approach is similar to the idea being pitched by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as to how Americans should deal with invasive lionfish. (Not to mention this failed plan of feeding America with hippopotamus meat.) But unlike lionfish, hippos are cute and charismatic and most people forget how dangerous they can be. This blind spot means that there has been public opposition to pretty much any attempt to curtail the hippos expansion, says Kremer.

It's been more than 20 years since Escobar was killed by police, but in Colombia his legacy has lived on fueled, at least in part, by his wandering hippos.

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