Colombia tries a new solution to Pablo Escobar’s ‘cocaine hippos’


BOGOTA, Colombia – Drug lord Pablo Escobar gained worldwide notoriety for the cocaine he smuggled out of Colombia.

In the late 1970s, billionaire Medellin cartel kingpins reportedly obtained four hippos from Africa or the United States to go with elephants, giraffes and antelope at a private zoo on his estate in western Colombia.

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

In the 30 years since then, the original hippopotamus population—three females and one male—has grown to more than 130. Hippopotamuses are not native to South America. Without natural predators, the aggressive, territorial animals have settled in the Magdalena River in central Colombia.

Now greedy herbivores are devouring plant life, driving out native animals, polluting soil and water, and scaring people away. (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.)

Brazilians have abandoned hundreds of cats on an uninhabited island. The authorities do not know how to save them.

You heard about the 500-pound black bear cocaine bear in Georgia that overdosed on Colombian powder dumped 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 breeding and commercialization. But the debate on whether to save or kill them is decades old.

To some here, the large mammals have become grotesque, evil folk heroes. But David Echeverri of Cornare, the regional environmental agency, said, “Just wait and see.” “Once they start attacking and killing people, everything will change.”

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

Now officials say they have a solution.

Officials from Colombia’s Antioquia Department for both Medellin 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 sent to the Greens Zoological Rescue and Rehabilitation Center in Gujarat, India. The rest have to go to Ostoc Sanctuary in Mexico. Ecuador, the Philippines and Botswana are slated for future shipments.

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

The plan to rehabilitate the hippos began a year and a half ago when Sarah Jaramillo, an entrepreneur here who works in animal welfare, asked the Ostoc Sanctuary in Culiacan, Mexico, where about 400 animals including deer and jaguars live, Would be interested in taking on some of them.

As humans stay indoors, wild animals take back what was once theirs

“We have started looking for and arranging resources,” said Ernesto Zazueta, president of the Ostok sanctuary. “Not everyone is willing to move and keep them.”

Zazueta said his organization is building a facility to keep the 10 hippos out of the public eye. “They will not be allowed to go, otherwise what happened in Colombia will happen in Mexico,” he said.

Effective ways to address the hippo problem have proven elusive. In 2009, the government defeated “controlled hunting” of some animals. Federico Fefil-Schneider, an experienced hunter escorted by the military, killed one.

Then the picture of his dead body surrounded by proud soldiers created an uproar. The fans named it Pepe; Some expressed grief over the loss.

At that time the population was less than three dozen. But politicians procrastinated and the numbers jumped.

A decade ago, Echeverri started the sterilization program. To date, 13 hippopotamuses have been sterilized and five have been transferred to local zoos.

“Do we consider those figures to be successful?” He thought. “Well, catching and neutering them is so complicated, so dangerous and so time consuming that the answer has to be yes. But it’s not an effective solution.

A female hippo can give birth to one calf every two years. Populations are reproducing faster than individuals are being sterilized.

In the past two years, Konare has added another approach: Gonacon, a chemical contraceptive provided by the US government. It is imposed by dart rifle on men and women alike.

Last year, he gave it to 38 hippos — but he has no idea which ones.

“Tracking them down is a mammoth task,” Echeverri said. Cornare tries to mark them with paint, satellite markers and collars, but the hippos are somehow able to elude them all. This year, the agency plans to load the darts with tattoo ink.

The dog is one of the most destructive mammals in the world. Brazil proves it.

Sending the hippos abroad would be costly. Zazueta of the Mexican sanctuary also served as a liaison between Colombia and the Indian sanctuary. He said officials would charter cargo planes from the Belarusian company Rada Airlines capable of carrying 20 to 30 hippos. A flight to Mexico can cost up to $400,000; For India, it would be $900,000.

Each hippo is kept in a special wooden crate that can cost up to $10,000. The cost of maintaining one person is approximately $2,500 per month.

“The resources for all of this come from Mexico and India,” Zazueta said. They said they are concerned about the welfare of the animals; That they are the offspring of Escobar’s pets is nothing to brag about.

An Argentine documentary filmmaker will film the entire process.

Lina de los Rios, a spokesperson For the regional government, said that it is “a valuable strategy to preserve these animals, as we do not believe their extermination is the right solution.”

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