Colombia has many interesting things. From world-famous coffee beans to the most sparkling emeralds on the planet to, unfortunately, the mass production and export of cocaine. Yes, why they even have exotic wildlife like hippos in South America, thanks in part to Pablo Escobar.
For those who are not up on their hippopotamus facts, they are not native to the South American continent. So, how did one of Africa’s most dangerous animals make its way across the Atlantic Ocean? Well, it’s all because of the somewhat eccentric and lavish lifestyle of Pablo Escobar. Clearly, one of the most famous Colombian drug lords of all time.
Pablo Escobar’s rise to the top of the Colombian cocaine industry allowed him to afford many luxuries. Known as “the king of cocaine,” he became the wealthiest criminal in history. He amassed a fortune of over thirty billion dollars at the peak of his life.
This wealth allowed Escobar to have anything he wanted from all over the world without much effort, and he had some eccentric and elaborate tastes and desires. Several millions of his vast fortune went into buying a section of land in Antioquia, Colombia. This land was vast, nearly eight square miles, and on it, he built his Hacienda Nápoles. This estate featured a luxurious Spanish colonial house, a sculptured park, a private airport, a Formula-1 racing track, a massive collection of vintage and modern cars and bikes, a brothel, and of course, his famous zoo.
This zoo was not just a small petting zoo for the kids, with a few local animals in some cages. It was rather an enormous compound that could rival many local zoos worldwide. It featured some of the largest animals on the planet, including elephants, hippopotamuses, horses, giraffes, countless exotic birds, ponies, and reptiles. The land needed to be vast, and luckily Escobar had such a property.
Like nearly everything else in the world, everything must end, including Escobar’s reign of power in Colombia. After years of enjoying his empire, the Colombian police force, in 1993, shot and killed Escobar. With him now out of the picture, his family became entangled in a legal struggle with the government over his vast properties, which included the zoo.
Eventually, the government was victorious in court, and the property became theirs. However, with so many animals and most requiring large amounts of food daily, the cost of maintaining such a facility began to tax the government’s resources. As such, most of the animals were then donated to Colombian zoos and other facilities worldwide.
All except the hippopotamuses. They somehow escaped the facility and reached nearby lakes, where they became feral and adapted to their new environment. This is where the story truly starts!
The original hippos from the compound numbered four, with one male and three females. This female-heavy proportion allowed for multiple pregnancies and an increase in their numbers. It’s estimated that by 2007, sixteen hippos were still roaming the surrounding rivers and lakes as they thrived on the vast vegetation in the area.
Seven years later, their numbers there were said to be around forty of the animals in the Puerto Triunfo region in Antioquia. The species proved it could survive and adapt to live independently in the Colombian wild. Fast forward five more years, and the hippos reached one hundred in number and beyond. Some estimates put them at around one hundred and twenty individuals, with a range of nearly 870 square miles.
South American hippos reach sexual maturity earlier than their African counterparts, adding to the rapid increase in their numbers. As the years’ progress, the hippopotamus population in the coming decade could reach the two-hundred mark. A few decades into the future, perhaps thousands stemming from the initial escape so many years ago.
There is a distinct divide between conservationists and ecologists as to whether the hippos are a problem or a noticeable help to their local environment. On the one hand, they are defined as an invasive species which can alter the once-balanced ecosystem caused by their heavy-vegetation diet. Endangered animals sharing the hippos’ habitat may be displaced or driven to their ultimate extinction.
On the other hand, ecologists suggest that the hippos add beneficial nutrients to the water, which can help the surrounding flora and fauna. Still, others, who see the hippos as a safe population, offer the idea that the hippos could be a draw for tourism in the area which will financially help surrounding businesses.
Due to many circumstances, including the possibility that the hippos would eventually, if left unchecked, change the composition of the water, disrupt the aquatic habitat, and possibly injure or kill local fishermen and guides in the area, the government, in 2022, officially declared the hippos as an invasive species.
With this official declaration, the government could invest money and resources to prevent or slow their reproduction and keep the ever-increasing population under control. However, both animal rights activists, as well as local inhabitants who rely upon the hippos as tourist attractions oppose the direction the government is taking.
With all the oddities of the story, the simple fact remains that the hippos became survivors in South America. They endured the initial transition to a continent far from their native land. They adapted to life on exhibit in Escobar’s private zoo.
Finally, during the turmoil of the compound takeover by law enforcement, they escaped into the wild. They did not die from its dangerous inhabitants and terrain but to thrive and even reproduce abundantly. Although their future fate is unknown at this time, these hippos beat the odds and continue to flourish.
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