Antioquia wants to expedite translocation of Escobar’s “cocaine hippos”

Felipe Villegas/Humboldt

The Governor of Antioquia, Aníbal Gaviria, wants to rid his department of an invasive species that has reproduced in the marshlands of the Magdalena River valley. The species was introduced to Colombia in the 1980s as a wildlife attraction in a zoo known as Hacienda Napoles.

The hacienda, owned by the notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar of the Medellín Cartel had also imported exotic peacocks, a herd of zebras, giraffes from Africa and camels to entertain family, friends and the locals of the nearest town, Puerto Triunfo. But it was the hippos that best adapted to the swamps of the country’s largest river.

As Escobar was hunted down by the National Police, his tropical theme park, adorned with a single-prop Piper that successfully flew the first shipment of cocaine to Florida, fell into abandon and decay. Even the pristine swimming pool where bikini-clad supermodels frolicked with Sicilian mobsters, Panamanian bankers and guayabera-clad politicians became a wateringhole for iguanas, bats and tapirs. And while Escobar’s fleet of vintage cars were relegated to the dust-bin of narco-memorabilia, four hungry hippos – one male and three females – evaded authorities to reproduce in a pond close to their pretend African backwaters.

The original menagerie of four has grown to more than 140 in over three decades since Escobar’s death, and while at first, the local fishermen tried to evade them while casting their nets into the Magdalena, the hippos became familiar with the town, and are now regular visitors, not unlike the scores of tourists that descend from air-conditioned buses to photograph the arched entrance of the drug lord’s estate.

But for the Colombian government, 140 hippos is one too many, and despite efforts to extract the species by culling young males, governor Gaviria wants the national government’s Agricultural Institute – ICA – to expedite the paperwork for transport of 70 hippos to Mexico and India. If Gaviria gets his request, Escobar’s “cocaine hippos” will be shipped to natural sanctuaries in both countries, and means by which the animal will not have to be sacrificed given that it has no natural predator to keep its population below three-digit numbers.

According to the governor, the first recipient of the hippos would be the Ostok Animal Protection and Sanctuary in La Campana, Mexico, where 10 would be given protection, and 60 others then sent to India. Ernesto Zazueta, director of Mexico’s Zoo Networks, would oversee the “translocation” mission. Gaviria confirmed on Blu Radio that returning this species to its native Africa was “not allowed”.

In the meantime, despite fluctuations in the estimated population of the hippo, by shipping the first 70, the country could delay future reproduction of this species. The Alexander von Humboldt Institute estimates that within this decade, 700 hippos could inhabit the Magdalena watershed unless other drastic measures are implemented beside expensive culling and sterilization campaigns.