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EL ESPECTADOR

Pablo Escobar's Hippos Are Running Wild

The late Colombian drug lord spent some of his cash on a private zoo, which the Colombian state took over after Escobar was killed. But now, deadly hippopotami have fled the reserve.

Hippos on the lam
Hippos on the lam
Sergio Silva Numa

PUERTO TRIUNFO — A rare public good left by Pablo Escobar is the Hacienda Nápoles park. In the 1980s, it had been the all-powerful drug kingpin's private zoo, which he'd filled with valuable wildlife from around the world, including no fewer than 80 hippopotami.

But even this family-friendly piece of the Escobar legacy has an ugly side, as Colombia's Environment Ministry reports a rash of potentially dangerous hippos have escaped the premises in southern Colombia.

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Pablo Escobar's Hacienda Napoles — Photo: Pascaweb/GFDL

The Environment Ministry now confirms that 10 hippos have left the confines of the nature reserve. "This is an alert so people are aware how dangerous they are," said Environment Minister Luz Helena Sarmiento.

Those immediately affected are likely in the nearby river port of Puerto Triunfo, and authorities acknowledge that they are not sure how to deal with the problem, which first began five years ago when two hippos escaped from the park.

One of them, named Pepe, wandered, wallowed and cavorted for three years around the middle sector of the Magdalena river in Colombia's Antioquia department, until shot in June 2012 by authorities concerned it was a public danger. The other escaped hippo, Napolitano, was recently caught in an operation involving the Environment Ministry, Army and Discovery Channel.

Back to Africa?

But now the risk appears to have multiplied. David Echeverri, head of fauna at the regional wildlife entity CORNARE, says 40 or 50 hippos may be out now in this sector of the Magdalena river. There were 30 hippos in the park in 2009 and now there are 23, he said, and they tend to give birth to five or six calves a year.

For the animals, it is a space problem. Hippos are territorial and "expansionist...gradually having to move on, fighting over territory," Echeverri explained. "It is very difficult to control. Indeed at night, when they come out of the water they can travel up to 10 kilometers."

He added that hippos "are not good natured. There is a potential danger to residents and livestock."

Carlos Valderrama, a veteranarian who helped catch Napolitano in 2009, said hippos can kill humans if they perceive them as a threat. "They eat crops and prevent fishing in rivers they live in and although this has yet to be seen here, they can spread disease," he explained. "Also, we do not know the effect they will have on native species or waterways. We are not in the African plains."

Nobody wants them back in Africa, as they could transmit unspecified "biological agents" there. Zoos say they can't handle the beasts. Valderrama says this leaves few solutions, of which the most "viable" is to shoot them. "Nobody likes doing that, because we are precisely in the conservation business" and hippos are "an exotic species." Otherwise he said the males could be castrated, making them less aggressive — a "titanic and risky endeavor... more so if we don't know where they are all located."

For its part, the Environment Ministry has declared it has "no resources" to deal with the problem now.

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