Why Pablo Escobar’s “Cocaine Hippos” Are Wanted Dead
The famous drug kingpin’s animals are causing havoc in Colombia.
One of the most notorious criminals of all time, Pablo Escobar, the Medellin cartel founder was thought to be one of the world’s richest men.
However, rather surprisingly, he’s also responsible for what ecologists have described as an ‘ecological time bomb.’
A group of hippos originally imported by Escobar to his private zoo decades ago have multiplied and, according to scientists, are now spreading through one of the country’s main waterways — the River Magdalena. In an attempt to stop the spread of the invasive species, a study published in the Biological Conservation Journal stated that culling the animals is the only way to mitigate their impact.
The History Of The “Cocaine Hippos”
After authorities killed Escobar in 1993, they seized his luxury estate, the Hacienda Napoles.
Kangaroos, giraffes, elephants, and many more animals were found in his private zoo, and were all promptly distributed to different zoos across the country. But not the hippos.
Because of how difficult they were to move, authorities left them, expecting them to die. Instead, they thrived.
An Ever Growing Herd
Originally, Escobar had four hippos in his private zoo — now there are estimates of up to 120.
Conservationist and veterinarian Carlos Valderrama told the BBC, “It is the biggest hippo herd outside Africa, which is their native region.”
Nataly Castelblanco, a Colombian biologist, estimates that, as early as 2034, the Hippo population could number over 1400 without a cull.
In their Biological Conservation Journal study, they laid out an “ideal” scenario — where 30 animals will have to be culled yearly, to stop their numbers from multiplying exorbitantly.
But why so many hippos?
Well, many factors have contributed to their breeding.
- There are no natural predators for hippos in South America, meaning that they can reproduce much more easily.
- The vastly improved weather also helps. In South Africa, the hippo population is in part controlled by droughts. These don’t occur in South America. In fact, the conditions seem so ideal in Colombia that the animals are actually starting to reproduce at earlier ages.
Why Are They a Problem?
An increased amount of hippos could severely disrupt the local ecosystem.
Scientists studying the hippos’ environmental impact believe they could do so in a number of ways: from displacing native species already under threat of extinction, like the manatee, to altering the chemical compositions of waterways, which could endanger fisheries.
There’s also the fact that they are incredibly dangerous. In Africa, 500 people are killed by hippos every year — making them the world’s deadliest mammal. If left to multiply, they could become a serious threat.
While hippos haven’t killed anyone yet in Colombia, a farm worker was seriously injured by one in May 2019.
They’re not contained either. Escobar’s hippos are spreading across Colombia’s biggest river basin, and have been spotted as far as 370km away from Hacienda Napoles.
Opposition To The Cull
Not all scientists are on board with killing the animals.
Enrique Ordonez, a biologist at Colombia’s National University, said that this thriving herd offers hope to preserve global hippo numbers. Why kill an animal that is considered a vulnerable species?
It’s not just scientists that oppose the cull, though. The public loves the animals.
Ms Castelblanco stated in the BBC article, “Some people in Colombia can get very angry when they talk about the hippos. People tend to understand much more about invasive species when we talk about plants or smaller creatures, instead of a massive mammal that many may find cute.”
Perhaps the biggest obstacle of all when it comes to culling the animal, is that they are legally protected.
In 2009, Colombian Army soldiers shot the hippo Pepe (because it was deemed a threat to local communities), and the public outcry was so massive, that the government had no choice but to make it illegal to kill the mammal.
So, it doesn’t seem likely that Pablo Escobar’s Hippos will be culled anytime soon.
However, much like their former owner, they may one day become too powerful to stop.