Pablo Escobar’s ‘cocaine hippos’ raise ecological dilemma

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DORADAL, Colombia – Nearly three decades after he was killed, Pablo Escobar was able to leave behind another ticking bomb. This one comes with poop that environmentalists say is threatening to collectively suffocate fish in Colombia’s most important river.

During the 1980s, the cocaine trafficker illegally imported four hippos, a male and three females, native to sub-Saharan Africa for his personal exotic zoo. It was at the infamous billionaire’s Hacienda Nápoles, a remote luxurious estate, east of Medellín, Colombia.

The founder of the feared Medellín Cartel was killed in 1993. Colombian authorities moved the giraffes, lions, and other exotic animals to local zoos. The heavy hippos stayed behind, escaped, and their population is booming. Experts say the semiaquatic mammals are wreaking havoc on the ecosystem.

The Colombian government has made it illegal to hunt hippos. Very large males can weigh up to 4,400 pounds. There are no natural predators to control the population.

Dozens of wild hippos found their way to the nearby Magdalena River, which flows northward through the country and to the Caribbean Sea. Environmentalists say the hippos have displaced the vulnerable West Indian Manatees, or sea cows.

“There is no easy solution,” said David Echeverri, a biologist with CORNARE, a Colombian environmental government agency. He added, “catching hippos in the Magdalena River may be impossible.”

In December, the Biological Conservation Journal published “A hippo in the room: Predicting the persistence and dispersion of an invasive mega-vertebrate in Colombia, South America.” The researchers concluded the hippos are an invasive species and killing them is the only way to prevent population growth.

A sterilization program brought little success. Only 11 have been sterilized so far and about 10 are born every year. Environmentalists are asking the government to expand the program. A decision is pending.

Ana Quesino lives near Hacienda Nápoles, which is now a public park. She said she is not afraid of the wild hippos. She has grown fond of the mostly herbivorous animal since she is able to see a group pass by near her home almost daily.

“It seems to me that the experience is very nice,” Quesino said in Spanish.

Torres contributed to this report from Miami.

About the Authors:

The Emmy Award-winning journalist joined the Local 10 News team in 2013. She wrote for the Miami Herald for more than 9 years and won a Green Eyeshade Award.