When you think of Pablo Escobar, different words come to mind— but “hippopotamus” isn’t one of them.
The notorious Colombian drug lord was both reviled and enamored for his crimes and flashy personality, later being immortalized in countless books, films, and television shows.
What most people don’t know, however, is that the notorious crime lord’s pets are causing chaos in South America, still to this very day…
During Escobar’s heyday, the drug baron built a luxurious estate known as Hacienda Nápoles. Here, he constructed a private airport, sculpture park, bullring, and swimming ponds. But, of course, what mansion would be complete without a zoo packed with illegally smuggled animals?
Pablo’s illegal zoo housed elephants, giraffes, hippos, and other exotic creatures. He’d let the public wander the grounds freely; buses of schoolchildren would visit on trips. Upon Escobar’s death in 1993, his estate was seized by the government who dispersed the various animals to zoos around the country. But fourteen years later, locals reporting seeing bizarre-looking creatures…
Carlos Valderrama, from the charity Webconserva, recalled: “They found a creature in a river that they had never seen before, with smalls ears and a really big mouth.”
“We started walking around and of course they were all coming from Hacienda Nápoles. Everything happened because of the whim of a villain.”
Turns out Escobar’s hippos are living in Colombia’s main river — and for the past 10 years, officials have been trying to curb the growing population.
“It’s just like this crazy wildlife experiment that we’re left with,” said San Diego University ecologist Rebecca Lewison.
According to BBC News, you can tell how happy hippos are by how much sex they are having. Escobar’s female hippos are becoming sexually active six to eight years younger than African hippos, with every fertile female giving birth to a calf each year.
Although Escobar only owned four hippos (three females and a male), researchers estimate there are now between 40 and 60 hippos living the Magdalena River. The government believes they are an invasive species and is looking for ways to slow down their increasing numbers.
But some researchers don’t believe the hippos are doing any harm. In fact, they may actually be helping the ecosystem.
In Africa, hippos are known to have dramatic impacts on the landscape. Because they eat from the land and defecate in the water, they can alter the water chemistry. By virtue of size and mass, their movements create large channels for water flow which can also alter the structure of wetlands. But Jens-Christian Svenning, a biologist from Denmark, thinks the hippos are helping the environment rather than hurting it. He believes their purpose may be similar to those served by species of former South American herbivores who have gone extinct in the past 20,000 years.
Like the Toxodon, for example:
Other researchers say the argument is irrelevant. They say that under any circumstances, a thriving population of hippos outside of Africa is a truly an amazing thing.
Animal ecologist Arian Wallach from the University of Technology in Sydney told National Geographic:
“The fact that there are wild hippopotamuses in South America [is] a wonderful story of survival, of agency, of, pioneering.”
Although the government has discussed culling, relocating, and sterilizing the animals, no immediate plan is in place. It’s unclear what the future holds for Escobar’s “cocaine hippos”, but one thing’s for certain: the drug baron and his luxurious ways are stirring up chaos and controversy, still to this very day.
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