I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Pablo Escobar, the head of the Medellín drug cartel, brought hippos to grace his vanity project of a private zoo. In 1993, police killed the cocaine king and seized his estate. Some of the animals in the zoo were sent to animal sanctuaries, but the hippos were left to fend for themselves. The assumption seems to have been that the animals would die; instead, they thrived and multiplied.
The Escobar Empire
The head of the Medellín drug cartel was an immensely rich man. The cartel was raking in more than $400 million a week, and Escobar had an estimated net worth of $25 billion (about $46 billion in today’s money).
That kind of coin funded a lavish lifestyle. The most obvious symbol of his wealth was Hacienda Nápoles, an opulent mansion that is said to have cost $63 million. The house sat on a 7,000-acre estate with all the trinkets a millionaire would need—a bullfighting arena, soccer field, artificial lakes, and statues of dinosaurs.
Then there was the zoo.
Escobar’s collection of wild animals included giraffes, elephants, camels, and zebras―200 species in total, including four hippos.
Early in the 1990s, under pressure from the United States, the Colombian government decided it was time to put Pablo Escobar out of business. The drug king went underground and famously said “I would rather have a grave in Colombia than a jail cell in the U.S.”
In December 1993, police tracked him down. As he tried to escape across rooftops in Medellín he took a bullet to the head. The state seized Hacienda Nápoles and all its treasures. As officials started to round up all the critters in the zoo for relocation, they deemed the hippos too difficult to move.
Exploding Hippo Population
The hope that Escobar’s four hippos would conveniently die proved to be false; they went feral in a habitat that suited them nicely. By 2007, the numbers had climbed to 16, and seven years later, there were said to be 40. As of this writing there are thought to be as many as 80 wild African hippos in Colombia. The prediction is that by 2035 there could be 1,500 of the giant animals on the loose.
They have made their home in the Magdalena River, sometimes called the Mississippi River of Colombia, and they are occupying an area of almost 2,000 km2 (770 sq mi). Of course, the so-called “cocaine hippos” are an invasive species and some scientists have said they are an ecological time bomb.
They have no natural predators in Colombia and don’t face the periodic droughts that kill off some hippos in Africa. Conditions are so good that the animals reach sexual maturity earlier than in their native habitats.
When Hippo Numbers Were Low and Still on Escobar's Estate
Cocaine Hippos and the Environment
Scientists say the hippo population explosion is having a negative effect on the local ecology. Some people might call these naysaying folk "hippo-critical," but a writer of my stature would never stoop that low―never.
The animals frequently defecate in the water in which they spend much of their time. Researchers have found that this is changing oxygen levels in the water and that is having a negative knock-on effect to fisheries.
Scientists from the University of California, San Diego have been studying the Magdalena River and associated lakes. They’ve found that hippo poop is fertilizing the water and causing “excess algae production that can lead to harmful algal blooms similar to red tides.”
Giant river turtles, caymans, and manatees are likely to suffer as the chemical composition of water bodies are changed by the presence of the hippos.
Castrate or Cull?
So what to do with the increasing size of the hippo population? Obviously, any solution is much easier when there are 80 animals rather than thousands.
Sterilization has been put forward as an answer, but undoubtedly, not by the people assigned to castrate male hippos. The animals are notoriously difficult to capture and the process involves great danger.
Veterinarian Carlos Valderrama took part in a hippo castration. He told the BBC “We are talking about an animal that can weigh five tons and be very aggressive. Even though we had sedated the animal, it almost tipped the crane we were using to help with the procedure. It was like being with a dinosaur in a Jurassic Park movie.”
The experience told Valderrama that sterilization, costing about $50,000 per animal, will not deal with the problem. That leaves gunfire as the only viable option.
There’s some experience to be drawn on from Africa. In the 1960s, a huge concentration of hippos in the Kazinga Channel and Lake Edward area of Uganda was causing ecological damage. A cull was ordered and game park warden Frank Poppleton was handed the job.
Killing a hippo is no easy matter. A large calibre, high-powered rifle is needed. In daylight hours, the animals are in the water making a body shot impossible. The only possible targets, therefore, are the eyes or ears.
John Northcote was a professional hunter in East Africa. He wrote:
“Before the cull, an aerial count showed 32,000 hippo in Lake Edward, the Kazinga channel and Hippo Pool. After several years of culling an aerial count showed over 34,000 hippo but the number in the park had been reduced. Frank had been shooting 1,248 a year! It is believed that the shooting caused an increase in the breeding rate.”
In addition to the difficulty of shooting a hippo, any cull in Colombia is likely to run into opposition. The local people have developed a deep affection for the animals and the tourism money from people who come to look at them is also a consideration.
One person close to the hippo study program told The Associated Press, “You can’t even talk about [culling hippos] because the rejection is staggering . . . I am being called a murderer.”
- Hippos are very territorial, aggressive, and extremely dangerous. According to the BBC, “Ungainly as it is, the hippopotamus is the world’s deadliest large land mammal, killing an estimated 500 people per year in Africa.”
- Pablo Escobar’s drug business was so lucrative he couldn’t spend all his earnings, no matter how hard he tried. A lot of his cash was stored in warehouses and buried in fields where it was eaten by rats or spoiled by weather. Escobar’s brother estimated about $2 billion was written off each year in losses to rodents and the elements.
- “Pablo Escobar: 8 Interesting Facts About the King of Cocaine.” Amy Tikkanen, Encyclopedia Britannica, undated.
- “Pablo Escobar’s Hippos Must Be Culled to Halt Biodiversity Disaster – Scientists.” Associated Press, February 10, 2021.
- “Drug Lord’s Hippos Make Their Mark on Foreign Ecosystem.” Nelson Aranguren Riaño, EurekAertl!,January 29, 2020.
- “Pablo Escobar: Why Scientists Want to Kill Colombia’s Hippos.” Fernando Duarte, BBC World Service, February 11, 2021.
- “Hippo Shot Placement.” John Northcote, African Hunter Magazine, June 2020.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Rupert Taylor