Colombian Hippos: Unnatural Terror or New Eco Attraction?

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Colombian hippos lounge by a river.

Hippos in Colombia? When You’re a Drug Lord You Can Have Anything…for a while

By Callum McLaughlin

Many people might know Pablo Escobar from the hit Netflix show “Narcos,” a fictionalized account of the infamous life and crimes of the Colombian drug lord.

The real Escobar became one of the richest people in the world by selling cocaine and brutally destroying any rivals to his hold on the drug market and made Colombia (at the time) the murder capital of the world. As horrible as Escobar’s legacy is, it has left something unexpected in its wake: a whole lot of hippos.

The ruins of Hacienda Napoles, the former home of drug lord Pablo Escobar and home to Columbia hippos.
The ruins of Hacienda Napoles, the former home of drug lord Pablo Escobar.

At the height of his power, Escobar ruled over the Hacienda Napoles, a sprawling 8 square mile estate full of animals illegally imported from the African Serengeti for the drug dealer’s amusement.

These included giraffes, elephants and most importantly four hippopotamuses. After Escobar’s arrest in 1991, most of the animals were confiscated and brought to zoos in Medellín and Bogotá.

However, some of the animals stayed at the estate (which was later turned into a theme park) which began to cause problems when some of the hippos managed to escape into the wild.

Though Escobar only had four hippos on his estate, about forty of those hippo’s descendants live in the forests near the Hacienda Napoles.

As of right now the hippos have yet to cause any known ecological damage or hurt any people (they are extremely territorial animals and will not hesitate to attack humans they see as threats), yet many Colombians are in favor of having the hippos sterilized or killed, seeing it as only a matter of time before they cause ecological damage or start attacking people in the area.

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A hippo does battle with some local wildlife, a crocodile.

Hippos in Colombia Make Themselves At Home

Despite many people seeing these hippos as a problem, the travel company True Colombia sees them as a new opportunity to bring tourists into the country.

True Colombia is a travel company that focuses on giving travelers the “real” Colombian experience, which thanks to Estabar’s meddling now includes hippos.

The hippos are a recent addition to True Colombia’s True Wilderness trip, an itinerary trip planned by the company which (unsurprisingly) focuses on Colombia’s wildlife and rich natural beauty.

Not About Pablo

“The focus of the trip is not on Pablo Escobar,” says Brian Schon, co-founder, and president of True Colombia, since that sort of attention being given to Escobar would be “very painful and insulting to the local community.”

Instead, the trip focuses on how the hippos have integrated themselves into their new environment, a phenomenon which Schon describes as “a very interesting and surreal piece of modern history.”

A Colombia hippo cuddles up to her baby.
A Colombian hippo cuddles up to her baby.

Though Schon does acknowledge that the hippos are an invasive species and could potentially become a huge problem, as of right now he sees no reason not to include such magnificent creatures on a trip devoted to animals and nature.

No Major Accidents

“So far there have been no major accidents and the hippos are far more tranquil than in Africa.

In Colombia, they have a perfect environment without drought, lack of food, natural predators, etc. They are far calmer here. Though of course they are huge and it’s necessary to respect responsible precaution with them.”

As for people who have actually taken the tour, they see the hippos’ presence in Colombia as a beautiful (if strange) highlight of their trip. “We were on the river for two days,” says Jeffrey Bernstein, a tourist who took the True Wilderness trip.

Getting Up Early

“One day the river and went down the rapids and another day we were able to go swimming. And then the next day we got up really early, went down the river to see the hippos. It’s one of those things where I think it’s hit or miss.

Like sometimes you see them and sometimes you don’t because they’re wild hippos. So sometimes you see them, sometimes you don’t. But we got lucky enough that morning to see them. It was pretty cool, we were the only ones there.

“The hippos basically live on this island in the middle of the river where the grass is really tall so you can only see them when they go out into the river, which they do periodically and most likely in the morning. We just parked the boat a ways away from them and watched. It was really nice.”

Hippos in Colombia: Here is where they live.
A beautiful, natural Colombian landscape.

The Colombian Ecosystem Goes on—With or Without Hippos

“One of the great things about Colombia is how diverse it is,” Bernstein went on to say. “Naturally its as diverse as the U.S.

Then, you know, you have the Southwest and the North, and you have the Rockies, and you have the Northeast, and you have the Midwest, and it’s all different.

A lot of countries don’t have that, and even though Colombia’s so small it has a lot of that same natural diversity too.”

Now, with the addition of hippos, it seems that Colombia is more naturally diverse than ever. Regardless of whether or not the hippos offer any actual threat to the area (be it to the local ecology or to people) public paranoia surrounding them means that they will likely be sterilized or shipped away in the near future.

Despite including them in nature tours even Schon acknowledges that at the end of the day, the hippos are not at home in Colombia. “I think we are still figuring out whether it’s safe to have them there, as they are certainly an invasive species, albeit less damaging than others, like the lionfish in the Carribean. The basic answer is they shouldn’t be here and the government has initiated a program to castrate the bulls to help the species naturally dwindle.”

So for people who want to experience hippos in the wild without exerting the effort of crossing the Atlantic (surely there must be a few of you) or travelers who just want to experience this bizarre, semi-natural phenomenon before it becomes a strange footnote in Colombian history, it appears that the time to act is now.

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