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Pablo Escobar’s Legacy on Colombia’s Wildlife

Explore the untold story of Pablo Escobar’s lasting impact on Colombian wildlife, as his ‘Cocaine Hippos’ continue to shape a unique conservation challenge.

Cocaine Hippo hippos live in the rivers and lakes of Colombia
Shutterstock/Guillermo Ossa

The “cocaine hippo” saga of Colombia continues, and it’s proving to be more dramatic than a telenovela. Despite the Colombian government’s attempts to rein in the hippos, the situation remains chaotic.

To give you a brief summary, Pablo Escobar brought hippos to Colombia for his private zoo at Hacienda Napoles. After he died, the other zoo animals were moved, but the hippos were left behind. Instead of dwindling, they multiplied, leading to the current problem in Colombia.

Despite the Colombian government’s commitment to sterilize the hippos, their efforts have proven to be ineffective. The challenge lies in attempting to sterilize hippos that weigh an average of 5,000 pounds, posing a significant obstacle for ecologists. Some scientists are suggesting the more drastic measure of culling the notorious hippos.

However, this has sparked controversy among both Colombians and foreigners. In 2009, protesters demanded the resignation of the Minister of Environment after a photo of a deceased hippo killed by the Colombian government surfaced on the internet. Newspapers published angry letters from readers, and the public outcry prompted a judge to prohibit any further killings of hippos. 

Nature vs. Nurture

Two hippo calves swimming
Two Hippo calves swimming. Image: Shutterstock/Jens Goos

But this raises the question of what should be done about the rapidly growing population. For some Colombians, it’s love. Unaccustomed to hippos, Colombians perceive them as cute, lovable creatures. According to El Colombiano, a reputable Colombian newspaper, there are accounts of school children in proximity to Hacienda Napoles sharing a pond with the hippos and even adopting hippo calves. One unidentified girl mentioned to the publication, “My father once brought home a small one. I named him Luna (Moon) because he was incredibly sweet – we nourished him with just milk.

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But if dangerous, why friend-shaped? Adorable giants they may be, but definitely not a friend. Hippos exhibit territorial and aggressive behaviors, leading to at least two maulings in Colombia in recent years. In one incident, farmworker Javier Díaz experienced three cracked ribs, a broken leg, and a collarbone when attacked by a hippo two years ago.

Describing the incident, his employer, cattle rancher Juan Cadavid, recounted to The Wall Street Journal how the hippo tossed Díaz in the air like a ball. Another case involved fisherman Álvaro Molina, who collided with a hippo in the Magdalena River, causing his boat to flip – compelling him to swim to shore.

So, what can be done?

Could Colombians just avoid the hippos? That’s a good idea in theory, but hippos aren’t native to Colombia. They have no natural predators like in their natural habitat of Africa, where hippos have to submit to lions, crocodiles, and hyenas. The Colombian ecosystem simply lacks the natural checks and balances needed for hippo control.

As Colombia grapples with the “cocaine hippo” dilemma, international collaboration, innovative conservation strategies, and careful consideration of long-term consequences are imperative to pave the way forward. The fate of these unexpected inhabitants remains uncertain as the nation strives to find a harmonious resolution to this unprecedented ecological challenge.

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