How Pablo Escobar’s ‘cocaine hippos’ became a biodiversity nightmare

Myths and legends continue to surround Colombia’s most notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar 26 years after his death. But his legacy has had an unexpectedly disastrous impact on some of the country’s fragile ecosystems. A herd of more than 80 hippos roam free, the descendants of animals smuggled to Colombia from Africa in the 1980s and now flourishing in the wild.

Reporter Joe Parkin Daniels tells Michael Safi that when Escobar was shot dead by police on a rooftop in his hometown of Medellín, the authorities seized his estate and the animals on it. While most were shipped to zoos, the logistics of moving his four hippos proved insurmountable and they were left to wander the Andes.

Now the out-of-control hippos have become a serious problem and the solution authorities have decided upon is a mass sterilisation programme.

Gina Paola Serna tells Michael that having studied to become a biologist and a vet, she never expected to one day be tasked with neutering an invasive herd of hippos that once belonged to Escobar. She says while they are a problem for the environment, the Colombian people have taken the hippos into their hearts and have further complicated the country’s relationship with Escobar’s legacy.

A Colombian hippo. Photograph: by Juancho Torres/Anadolu Agency via Getty

Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

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