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Colombia tries a new solution for Pablo Escobar’s cocaine hippos

Hippopotamuses descended from the quartet that Medellín Cartel drug lord Pablo Escobar smuggled into Colombia float in the lake at Hacienda Nápoles Park in Puerto Triunfo, once Escobar's private estate. (Fernando Vergara/AP)

The drug lord Pablo Escobar won worldwide notoriety for the cocaine he smuggled out of Colombia.

Less familiar is what he smuggled in. In the late 1970s, the billionaire Medellín Cartel kingpin acquired four hippopotamuses, reportedly from Africa or the United States, to go with the elephants, giraffes and antelopes at the private zoo on his estate in western Colombia.

When Escobar surrendered to authorities in 1991, the government seized his Hacienda Nápoles estate — and allowed the animals to roam free.

Big mistake.

In the 30 years since, the original hippos — three females and a male — have multiplied to more than 130. Hippos aren’t native to South America. Without natural predators, the aggressive, territorial animals have settled into the Magdalena River in central Colombia.

Now the insatiable herbivores are devouring plant life, crowding out native animals, polluting soil and water, and threatening people. (Hippos are among the world’s most dangerous animals, capable of killing a human with a single bite, responsible for an estimated 500 deaths each year.)

You’ve heard of Cocaine Bear, the 500-pound black bear in Georgia that overdosed on Colombian powder tossed from a drug smuggler’s plane? These are Escobar’s cocaine hippos: bigger, more numerous, deadlier. The Environment Ministry here last year labeled them an “invasive species” and banned their reproduction and commercialization. But the debate over whether to conserve or kill them goes back decades.

To some here, the large mammals have become quirky, roguish folk heroes. But “just wait and see,” said David Echeverri, from the regional environmental agency Cornare. “Once they start attacking and killing people, it’ll all change.”

By 2040, if the invasive species is left alone, the population could reach 600.

Now authorities say they have a solution.

A hippo swims in the Magdalena River in Puerto Triunfo. (Fernando Vergara/AP)

Authorities in Colombia’s Antioquia department, home to both Medellín and Escobar’s estate, plan to capture about 70 of the animals and send them to sanctuaries in India and Mexico.

Sixty are to be flown to the Greens Zoological Rescue and Rehabilitation Center in Gujarat, India. The rest are to go to the Ostok Sanctuary in Mexico. Ecuador, the Philippines and Botswana are lining up for future shipments.

(Escobar was held in the private prison built to his specifications under a deal with the government to avoid extradition to the United States. The facility, called the Cathedral, reportedly included a bar, soccer field and telescope so the drug lord could see his daughter in her Medellín home while they spoke by telephone. He walked out of the facility in 1992 and was shot to death by national police the following year.)

Planning for the hippos’ relocation began a year and a half ago, when Sara Jaramillo, an entrepreneur here who works in animal welfare, asked the Ostok Sanctuary in Culiacán, Mexico, home to around 400 animals, including deer and jaguars, whether it would be interested in taking some of them in.

“We started to seek resources and make arrangements,” said Ernesto Zazueta, president of the Ostok Sanctuary. “Not everyone is willing to transfer and keep them.”

Zazueta said his organization is preparing a facility to hold the 10 hippos out of public view. They won’t be let loose, he said: “Otherwise what happened in Colombia would happen in Mexico.”

Effective ways to address the hippo problem have proved elusive. In 2009, the government greenlit a “controlled hunt” of a couple of animals. Federico Pfeil-Schneider, an experienced hunter escorted by the military, killed one.

Then the photo of its carcass surrounded by proud soldiers sparked outrage. Fans named it Pepe; some grieved the loss.

At that point, the population was less than three dozen. But politicians dallied, and the numbers ballooned.

A decade ago, Echeverri launched a sterilization program. To date, 13 hippos have been sterilized and five have been relocated to local zoos.

“Do we consider those figures a success?” he mused. “Well, capturing and castrating them is so complex, so dangerous and takes so long that the answer should be yes. But it’s not an effective measure.”

Female hippos can birth one calf every two years. The population is reproducing faster than individuals have been sterilized.

In the past two years, Cornare has added another approach: the chemical contraceptive GonaCon, provided by the U.S. government. It’s applied by dart rifle on males and females alike.

Last year, they administered it to 38 hippos — but they have no ideas which ones.

“Tracking them down is a titanic task,” Echeverri said. Cornare has tried marking them with paint, satellite markers and collars, but the hippos, somehow, have been able to remove them all. This year, the agency plans to load the darts with tattoo ink.

Sending the hippos abroad will be expensive. Zazueta, of the Mexican sanctuary, also acted as a liaison between Colombia and the Indian sanctuary. He said authorities will charter cargo planes, capable of carrying 20 to 30 hippos, from the Belarusian company Rada Airlines. A flight to Mexico could cost $400,000; to India, it will be $900,000.

Each hippo is to be contained in a special wooden crate that could cost up to $10,000. Maintaining an individual costs roughly $2,500 per month.

“The resources for all of this come from Mexico and India,” Zazueta said. He said they’re concerned about the animals’ well-being; that they’re the progeny of Escobar’s pets is nothing to brag about.

An Argentine documentary producer will be filming the whole process.

Lina de los Ríos, a spokeswoman for the regional government, said this is a “valuable strategy to preserve these animals, as we don’t believe their extermination is the right solution.”

Hippos at the Hacienda Nápoles park in Puerto Triunfo. (Raul Arboleda/AFP/Getty Images)


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