Colombia Has A Wild Hippo Problem Started By Pablo Escobar’s Pets

Published November 29, 2017
Updated February 6, 2020
Published November 29, 2017
Updated February 6, 2020

A new study has found that Pablo Escobar's former hippo population has grown at an alarming rate, fertilizing harmful algae and bacteria, with no end in sight.

Hippo Teeth

Wikimedia CommonsTwo hippopotamuses.

While you might not know it, the legacy of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar isn’t tied exclusively to cocaine trafficking and murder. One of his most lasting marks on history might just be the four hippos he once owned that have now reproduced to a population of 80, befouling lakes in Colombia to the extent that they are now classified as an invasive species.

A new study, published in the journal Ecology, found that these massive animals have been excreting their waste into the local lakes and substantially changing the oxygen levels and chemistry of the waters.

The researchers, comprised of experts from the University of California, San Diego, and the Universidad Pedagógica y Tecnológica de Colombia, believe this population of hippos will only continue to increase — causing further environmental damage.

A CBS This Morning segment on the hippo plague in Colombia.

Running at speeds of almost 20 miles per hour on land, hippopotamuses have been known to take down anything in their path, including lions. These living tanks could be the deadliest large land mammal, killing an estimated 500 people per year in Africa.

Thankfully, barring a visit to the zoo, most people in America never need to worry about seeing and potentially being murdered by hippos. However, the same can not be said for Colombians near Escobar’s former private zoo on an estate known as Hacienda Nápoles.

According to the BBC, the zoo featured exotic wildlife such as elephants and giraffes to go along with hippopotamuses. After the Colombian police shot and killed Escobar in 1993, the government took control of the animals.

While some were transferred to facilities around the world, the hippos were left behind, eventually escaping and reverting to a more feral state.

Pablo Escobar Mug Shot

Wikimedia CommonsA mugshot of Pablo Escobar.

Left to their own devices and resilient enough to prevent their population from dwindling, the large mammals thrived. The lack of natural predators cleared the runway for their population growth to soar at an alarming rate.

They effectively take over whatever lake or river they come across and displace the species native to the region. An otter or a manatee stands little chance going up against the African behemoth — which is extremely territorial — so they are simply forced out if not outright killed.

Further, scientists are very concerned about the possible effects the hippos’ excrement could have on the Colombian ecosystem. For example, their waste adds nutrients to lakes, leading to algae blooms that kill fish.

The latest study found that hippo waste helps fertilize algae and bacteria harmful to both humans and animals. The resulting algal blooms, similar to red tides, can sicken both.

Lastly, given the violent temperament of the hippopotamus and the extreme danger they present to anyone or anything they come into contact with, their populations are very difficult to manage. The outlook for the local ecosystem, then, is rather grim..

“If you plot out their population growth, we show that it tends to go exponentially skyward,” said UC San Diego’s Jonathan Shurin, lead author and biological sciences professor.

Hippos In Colombia

YouTubeHippos roaming in Colombian lakes.

“In the next couple of decades there could be thousands of them. This study suggests that there is some urgency to deciding what to do about them. The question is: What should that be?”

The safety and livelihood of locals are also at stake. While no one has been slain by a hippo yet, the lumbering animals have already damaged farms in the area. Occasionally one will make its way to the center of town and send the people into a panic.

Local and federal governments have tried various solutions to the region’s hippo problem. They tried initiating a hunting program, but nobody wanted to kill the hippos, and eating them could potentially give people disease such as leptospirosis.

The government have also attempted to castrate the mammals, but hippos are sensitive to chemicals. That means they would have to be castrated manually, which is, for obvious reasons, a challenging endeavor. To further complicate matters, as a defense mechanism, their testicles are hidden inside their bodies.

Pablo Escobar almost certainly didn’t appreciate the potential ecological change bringing a bunch of hippos to Colombia would have, but long after his criminal empire is been forgotten, the descendants of his original pet hippos will continue their species’ lumbering, destructive march across the region.

Now that you’ve read about Pablo Escobar’s hippos in Colombia and the ecological disruption they represent, learn more unbelievable, outlandish Pablo Escobar facts. Then, check out these photos from Colombia’s Barranquilla Carnival.

Gabby Duran
Gabby is a student and a writer from the Philippines.