Colombia finds itself facing an extraordinary challenge, one that has been decades in the making. Escaping the shadows of its notorious past, the South American nation is now grappling with an unexpected legacy left behind by the infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar: his hippos.
The unlikely tale began in the 1980s when Pablo Escobar, at the height of his power, smuggled four hippos from Africa into Colombia. These massive creatures, native to the African continent, found an unlikely home at Escobar's extravagant country estate, Hacienda Nápoles, in Puerto Triunfo. In addition to hippos, the estate housed a menagerie of exotic animals, from elephants and ostriches to rhinos, giraffes, and zebras.
After Escobar's demise in a 1993 shootout with Colombian police, most of the animals found new homes in local or international zoos. However, the hippos posed a unique challenge – too dangerous and impractical to move. They were allowed to remain at the Hacienda Nápoles.
Over the years, the population of these colossal creatures has grown, and now, authorities estimate that more than 160 hippos are living in the region. Alarming projections suggest that their numbers could swell to around a thousand if no action is taken by 2035.
The Colombian government faces a dilemma. The hippos have no natural predators in their adopted homeland, and their proliferation threatens the local ecosystem and the safety of humans in the area.
While hippos in Africa are responsible for hundreds of human deaths each year, there have been no fatal incidents involving the Colombian population thus far, despite occasional attacks.
To combat this growing issue, Colombia's Environment Minister, Susana Muhamad, recently unveiled a multifaceted plan to curb the number of the overstaying guests. The plan includes surgical sterilization, the transfer of animals to other countries, and, as a last resort, euthanasia.
The initial phase of the plan involves the surgical sterilization of 40 hippos per year, a costly and risky procedure. Each sterilization procedure costs nearly $10,000 and carries potential dangers for the animals and the veterinarians. Moreover, the territorial nature of the hippos poses an additional challenge, as they can be highly aggressive.
Yet, experts believe that sterilization alone will not be enough to control the population explosion. The government is also exploring the possibility of transferring hippos to other countries, with discussions initiated with authorities in Mexico, India, and the Philippines.
However, despite the dangers presented by the growing hippo population, residents of Puerto Triunfo have grown accustomed to seeing these charismatic and chubby creatures. For many locals, the hippos have become a part of their community, and the idea of culling them is met with resistance.
Colombia's journey to control the legacy of Pablo Escobar's hippos is unique and challenging. As the government seeks to balance environmental conservation and public safety, the fate of these unlikely residents of Colombia remains uncertain. It's a story that continues to captivate the world, showcasing the complex interplay between humanity and the wild, even in the most unexpected of circumstances.