At the height of his power, Pablo Escobar controlled over 80% of the cocaine flowing into the United States. His organization spent over $1,000 dollars a week on rubber bands to hold the cash it stored in warehouses, and over a million dollars was written off every year as “spoilage” due to the rats that chewed the pallets of money he housed in dark, damp warehouses of Colombia.
He owned houses all over the world, was the center of the richest criminal empire that ever existed, and at his prime he was listed as one of the wealthiest men in the world, with an organization worth over $30 billion dollars.
He was known as the “King of Cocaine” and is considered to be the most successful criminal in history. He was also killed by the Colombian National Police on the rooftop of a middle-class barrio with a bullet hole in his leg, another in his chest, and a third in his ear.
But this story isn’t about Pablo Escobar’s success or his sins. It is about the wages of those sins.
In this case, thousands of pounds of wages, and all in African Hippopotamus flesh.
This story begins at a property called Hacienda Napoles, a ranch about one hundred miles east of Medellin. The focal point of the ranch was a Spanish colonial house, several thousand square feet in size, a race track, a world-class collection of antique cars and motorcycles, and a park that included life-sized dinosaur sculptures.
And there was a zoo.
The zoo was small but fully stocked, and would have given most city zoos a run for their money. It contained bison, zebra, ostriches, and even hippos.
It housed four hippos to be precise. Three females and one male. If you were looking for a hippo breeding situation you could do no better than move the African mammals to South America and create a harem for the sole male hippo.
But while Pablo Escobar had a fondness for his hippos, he was even fonder of cocaine, so the breeding of the giant animals were not his concern.
After his death at the hands of the National Police, possession of Hacienda Napoles fell to the government, who sold off what treasures it could and left what it could not. It divided up the splendid zoo of Pablo Escobar and shipped his animals off to other zoos around the country, and sometimes even outside the country.
Except for the hippos.
The hippos proved to be difficult to transport. While the structures and features of the ranch gave way to the rain forest, the hippos prospered.
An invasive species, the African hippo population is mainly held in check by predators and drought.
While the animals don’t really swim, they bob on the bottom of shallow rivers. Here the shallows lasted year round and vegetation was plentiful.
There was absolutely nothing for the giant animals to fear and nothing to keep them in check. In short, Colombia proved to be a wonderland for hippos.
Efforts were made to keep the hippopotamuses contained to the ranch. An electric fence was installed around the perimeter of the lake, but the engineers were uncertain how powerful to make the fence and accidently killed a hippo.
The local population, not wanting to the meat to go to waste, ate it. It was said that the hippo meat tasted remarkably like pork.
This was the first PR blunder for the Colombia government. Newspapers reported that the locals were eating the hippos, which was largely untrue, and thousands of foreigners protested. It was also brought to light that hippo meat could be infected with a transmittable disease that could prove deadly to humans, so the public was warned against eating it.
As the Colombian government struggled to keep the hippos in check, the grounds of the ranch continued to fall apart. While the ideal conditions for the hippos the ranch still existed for the hippos, what was once three hippos has blossomed to over fifty. And a worse discovery was made still later.
A break had been discovered in the perimeter and some of the hippos had made their way out of the ranch and into the countryside.
It is impossible to say how many hippos are in Colombia right now, but some estimate the number to be as high as 100.
Officials say the best solution would be to re-locate the giants, but that has proven difficult. Hippos, while herbivores, are aggressive and territorial. The second best solution, one which the government is attempting, is to castrate the males. This, too, is a massive undertaking and costs over $100,000 per castration, mostly due to the high costs associated with the capture and sedation of the creatures.
And this approach too has seen some opposition from the press.
Globally, it is estimated that around 500 people are killed a year by hippos, but as of yet there have been no reports of deaths in Colombia. The hippos are seen by the people of Colombia as “mascots” and baby hippos have been taken in as pets until they grow too large to care for.
It is a complex situation in Colombia. The country has enough remote land that the hippo problem may actually work out. If their birth rate can be culled, the hippos might have indeed found a home due to the legacy of Pablo Escobar, and Colombia may have inherited a new form of tourist attraction.
Just be warned that the giants are faster than they look.
Pablo Escobar’s Hippos: A Growing Problem – BBC News. (n.d.) http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-27905743
For Pablo Escobar’s Transplanted Hippos, Colombia’s A Wonderland. (n.d.) http://www.npr.org/2014/06/30/327064703/for-pablo-escobars-transplanted-hippos-colombias-a-wonderland