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The Milk House: Escobar’s hippos

Ryan Dennis for Progressive Dairy Published on 30 June 2021

Nonetheless, just as Escobar was a polarizing figure, so are his hippos. Efforts to eliminate the out-of-place hippo herd have been hampered by the locals’ affection toward them.

Forty of the beasts have been captured and kept at Escobar’s old estate …

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Like the other 60 million viewers who watched the Netflix series Narcos, I was both elated and a little conflicted when the program reached the re-enactment of Pablo Escobar’s death. I was glad the protagonists finally got the bad guy but despondent the show was over (not knowing Narcos: Mexico would be on its way). In a similar fashion, the legacy of the actual man is complicated, Escobar being both a heinous drug lord and a philanthropist who helped poor communities. He was reported to have killed 4,000 people, yet his funeral was attended by more than 25,000 local residents.

It has been almost 30 years since Escobar was shot on the rooftops by army soldiers. Still, the complex legacy of Escobar is very much alive today in Colombia, although not in the way one might have guessed from the show.

Pablo Escobar had a lot of money to burn. One of his pet projects (so to speak) was to create a personal zoo on his estate in Hacienda Nápoles, just east of Medellín, Colombia. He smuggled exotic animals from all over the world, creating a sort of “Noah’s Ark” in the middle of the Colombian jungle. After his death, all of the animals were confiscated and placed in zoos or research centres – except four hippopotamuses that were deemed too large and complicated to transport. They were released with the expectation they would eventually die in the foreign habitat.

As it turns out, however, the Colombian jungle offered the hippos an even better environment than their native Africa, providing a more stable food source and an absence of predators. As a result, those four hippos (one male and three females) multiplied into what is now an estimated 90 to 120 hippopotamuses, covering a range of over 2200 square kilometres. Scientists have discovered that Escobar’s hippos reach sexual maturity faster than African hippos and, if left unabated, could reach a population of several thousand within a few decades.

Ecologists around the world have warned about the consequences of not destroying the Colombian hippo population. As the world’s largest invasive species in size, their feces have created algae blooms in the Magdalena River Basin that compromise certain species of endemic fish, and they have displaced other critically endangered species found only in that area, such as West Indian manatees, the Dahl’s toad-headed turtle and the Magdalena River turtle (which apparently hippos eat). In addition to threatening the ecosystem, they are also notoriously dangerous, seriously injuring a farmer in 2017.

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Nonetheless, just as Escobar was a polarizing figure, so are his hippos. Efforts to eliminate the out-of-place hippo herd have been hampered by the locals’ affection toward them. Forty of the beasts have been captured and kept at Escobar’s old estate, which has been turned into a theme park that is ultimately an important source of tourism for the area. Others suggest the wild hippos have scared away the illegal fishermen in the area. In 2009, a soldier shot a hippo that was deemed a threat to the community, and the residents were so outraged they made it illegal to kill any more hippos. It is not uncommon for the animal, largely nocturnal, to wander through the local villages at night. The villagers, nonetheless, give them their space and carry on about their own business.

Some scientists have proposed sterilizing the hippos as a compromise. In that way, the present hippos can carry out the rest of their existence, and the ecosystem of the Magadalena River Basin would eventually return to normal. However, anyone who has worked with cattle can appreciate the difficulty in handling a 4,000-pound wild animal, even after caught and sedated. To date, one hippo bull has been sterilized, at a total cost of $50,000.

When I was a student at the University of Iowa, the local environmental club organized outings to comb the woods and pull up garlic mustard, which is an invasive species brought over from Europe in the 1800s. It didn’t take growing up on a farm to know such events were well meaning but ultimately futile. Once the plant established in the area, it was going to take over, despite all the Saturday afternoons yanking them out of the ground. The damage was done.

The destruction caused by the Colombian hippos is nearing a critical point and may ultimately result in the extinction of a few species. Nonetheless, the socio-cultural history borne by those hippos makes it a much more complicated situation. In addition to the added tourism, those large mammals belong to the legacy of a man the rest of the world saw as a cold-blooded murderer – but many of the locals saw as a saviour. They believed Escobar looked out for them when the government could not and have since transferred their loyalty to the large mammals that carry his memory. end mark

Ryan Dennis is the author of The Beasts They Turned Away, a novel set on a dairy farm. His website is Ryan Dennis

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