They are among the last survivors of the Medellín Cartel, regaining their freedom from the confines of a narco-estate by marching to the Magdalena River. When Hacienda Napoles was thriving with the cocaine fortune of Pablo Escobar, there were four hippos, a giraffe and plenty of imported plumage to keep the drug lord’s close business associates and inner circle of professional hitmen, entertained. Even rouge pilots returning from a drug run to the Everglades would delight in a tour of the ranch accompanied by mini-Uzi wielding “zookeepers.”

According to popular legend surrounding the mansion in Puerto Triunfo (Antioquia), dried hippo excrement was a highly effective agent in concealing the smell of cocaine before crated and dispatched from the hacienda’s airstrip.

When the hunt for Escobar shifted to Medellín in the early 1990s and his many hideouts in middle-class neighborhoods, Hacienda Napoles became over-run with rot and decay, the fabled swimming pool where bikini-clad supermodels frolicked with Italian mobsters, Panamanian bankers and guayabera-clad politicians became a wateringhole for iguanas, bats and zebras. Even a Piper single prop that allegedly reached Miami with a cargo of “Colombian gold,” and adorned the arched gate of the Hacienda, began falling apart at its metal seams. Escobar’s fleet of luxury cars was relegated to the dust-bin of narco-memorabilia, and while they would be seized as government property, the four hungry hippos – one male and three females – evaded authorities to feed far from their pond in faux-African-Colombian backwaters.

More than a decade after Escobar was triangulated and gunned-down by snipers on December 3, 1993, his prized pets resurfaced in headlines after several of these semi-aquatic creatures struck the canoes of local fishermen, and while considered “a nuisance” at first, repeated sightings by children as they were playing along the banks of Colombia’s longest river forced the national government to assemble a hunting squad to bring down the culprit of hippo reproduction: “Pepe.” With a name as familiar to Colombians as the many victims of the Medellín Cartel “Los Pepes” (People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar), the giant mammal was stalked and killed in the vicinity of the drug lord’s tropical mansion, and while the government believed that “Pepe’s” demise would stump proliferation of the Hippopotamus amphibius, the original menagerie has multiplied to more than 100.

The exuberant wildlife of the Magdalena basin includes caimans, howler monkeys, jaguars and yellow butterflies, the latter elevated to mythical status in the words of Nobel Laureate Gabriel García Márquez. In this landscape of lore, superstition and magic realism, for the Colombian government, 100 hippos is one too many, and while the country has no shortage of sharpshooters to pick and choose from, stalking every animal appears a near impossibility as the so-called “cocaine hippos” have migrated far and wide from Escobar’s gilded Jurassic Park.

A recent scientific paper titled “A Hippo in the room” written by a team of Mexican and Colombian researchers claims that Colombia’s exotic hippo population has been growing steadily at a rate of 14.5% […] and “success in adaptation and spreading is likely due to the high availability of resources offered by the Magdalena River basin, combined with the lack of predators or human-mediated threats.” According to these experts on mega-vertebrates, “the only course of action that could probably lead to the extirpation of this exotic species is to implement a high-level extraction by culling.”

Culling hippos is a dangerous – and cumbersome – undertaking given that young males can weigh up to a tonne each and human-adverse. Sterilization campaigns conducted between 2011 and 2019 on four males and two females had no impact on the reducing population and given estimates published in Biological Conservation, the hippos could “colonize the northern portion of Colombia in the next decades facilitated by climate change.” The Hippopotamus amphibius is currently categorized as Vulnerable on the IUCN endangered species Red List and its population across 29 countries in Africa is estimated between 115,000 to 130,000.

The death of “Pepe” by a dozen combat-experienced soldiers, a taxidermist and a professional shooter became a clarion call for conservationists who claimed that more effort and government funds were invested in killing one animal than protecting the lives of environmentalists working in regions controlled by Marxist guerrilla and paramilitaries.

Last year, 87 activists were killed by illegal armed groups in the country despite the coronavirus pandemic and quarantines, and the recent murder of Gonzalo Cardona, a leading expert and guardian of the Yellow-eared Parrot, in a territory controlled by dissidents, highlights that Colombia’s ranking as the second-most biodiverse nation on the planet continues to be tarnished by extra-judicial murders of nature’s defenders.