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The Wild Story of What Happened to Pablo Escobar’s Hungry, Hungry Hippos


Emily Lankiewicz

Four decades ago, Pablo Escobar brought to his Medellín hideaway four hippopotamuses, the centerpieces of a menagerie that included llamas, cheetahs, lions, tigers, ostriches and other exotic fauna. After Colombian police shot Escobar dead in December 1993, veterinarians removed the animals—except the hippos, which were deemed too dangerous to approach. The hippos fled to the nearby Magdalena River and multiplied.

Today, the descendants of Escobar’s hippos are believed to number nearly 200. Their uncontrolled growth threatens the region’s fragile waterways. Smithsonian contributor Joshua Hammer joins us to recount this strange history and explain why Colombian conservationists have embarked upon an unusual program to sterilize these hippos in the wild via “invasive surgical castration,” a procedure that is, as he has written for Smithsonian magazine, “medically complicated, expensive and sometimes dangerous for hippos as well as for the people performing it.” Then, ecologist Rebecca Lewison tells us how her long-term study of hippo populations in Africa offers hints of how these creatures will continue to alter the Colombian ecosystem—and what authorities can do about it.

A transcript is below. To subscribe to “There’s More to That,” and to listen to past episodes on why we’re still counting calories even though that’s been largely discredited as a healthy eating tool, what the orcas tipping over yachts are really doing, and how the shocking crime perpetrated by wealthy teens Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb a century ago helped to turn true crime into a perennial subject of American public fascination, find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.


Joshua Hammer: I can’t remember where I first heard about them. I think I must’ve had some awareness of them for the last couple of years.

Chris Klimek: Josh Hammer is a journalist and author, and he’s been following a surprising story for Smithsonian magazine, one that goes all the way back to the 1980s.

Hammer: That’s when the drug lord Pablo Escobar began importing exotic animals for his hacienda in Antioquia province in northwestern Colombia.

Klimek: This was at the height of Pablo Escobar’s wealth and power, and the narco-terrorist wanted to live in a place that fit his larger-than-life image.

Hammer: He bought a big patch of property near the Magdalena River, which is the longest river in Colombia, a jungle-y area. He cleared the area and began transforming it into his private playground and began importing these animals, most of them, we believe, from zoos in the U.S. There were kangaroos, there were dolphins for his artificial lakes, elephants.

Klimek: But there was one kind of animal that unexpectedly created a wildlife crisis in northern Colombia, one that persists today—a big one.

Hammer: The facts are a little murky, but it looks like he imported four hippos, three females and one male, from a zoo or some sort of wildlife refuge, or an animal breeder in either Texas or California.

Klimek: You know when you buy two gerbils and then it turns into three or four or five gerbils? Well, the same thing happened with these hippos. And while Escobar eventually had to flee the area, they stuck around.

Hammer: After he was killed, fleeing the police in Medellín in 1993, basically the hacienda was abandoned, and the animals fended for themselves. Then the hippos started to expand. They started to move beyond the borders of the hacienda, and here we are 40 years later, and they’re dealing with a population of about, well, rough estimate is about 200 hippos right now—and growing, obviously.

Klimek: On its face, this is a pretty ridiculous situation. A drug lord’s feral hippos, swimming in the waters, eating their way through the Colombian jungles, interacting with the local populations, animal and human. But when you start to dig deeper, there’s a lot to be learned here about both the consequences of human behavior and conservation crises across the globe.

From Smithsonian magazine and PRX Productions, this is “There’s More to That,” the show where we’re hungry, hungry for stories about invasive hippos. In this episode, one of the most complicated wildlife puzzles in the world and what it means for both animals and humans. I’m Chris Klimek.


Klimek: Hi, it’s Chris. I hope you’re enjoying “There’s More to That.” We hope that our episodes are giving you a sense of what the world of Smithsonian magazine is all about, and we’d love to hear from you what you think of this season. More importantly, we want to know what you’d like to hear more of. Your input is key. If you have the time to help us design our future episodes, please take this survey. You can find it at SmithsonianMag.com/podcastsurvey. We’ll also put a link in our show notes. It should take about five minutes. Thanks again and, as always, thanks for listening.


Klimek: So since it’s been more than 30 years and not all our listeners may know, who was Pablo Escobar?

Hammer: Well, Escobar was born in a working-class neighborhood of Medellín. When he was in his teens, however, he began essentially a life of crime doing things like stealing tombstones from graveyards and sanding off the names and reselling them, and just forging documents, all sorts of stuff. And then in his early 20s, he began running cocaine.

I guess at the time, neighboring countries like Peru and Bolivia were producers, and he was bringing the cocaine in, processed and unprocessed, flying it up in a small plane to landing strips in the United States. And later he got involved with a couple of other Colombian dealers and formed what became known as the Medellín Cartel, which pretty much controlled all cocaine trafficking for years between Colombia and the United States. And so he grew extremely wealthy and bought his way into a seat in the Colombian parliament, and was living with total impunity and making billions of dollars until the mid-’80s, when it all caught up with him.

Klimek: What was life like in Colombia during Pablo Escobar’s lifetime?

Hammer: Very violent. The drug traffickers were carrying out their own terrible acts of violence in the mid-’80s. Escobar was carrying out assassinations. He had death squads killing his enemies, car bombings. In 1989, an unwitting courier carried a bomb onboard an Avianca jet, which blew up mid-flight, killed about 130 people. It was savage.

On top of that, you had this escalating civil war going on between FARC, the communist, Marxist guerrilla movement in Colombia, and the Colombian government. And then on top of that, you had these, what they call the autodefensas, which were these right-wing vigilante death squads, which were often in league with drug lords. They were getting a cut of the action from the drug trade, and they were also involved in killing suspected Marxists. So there were three major violent actors all causing chaos during the ’80s and ’90s in Colombia. It was a very, very difficult time. Up to 30,000 people were being killed in a year at the peak of the violence in Colombia.

Klimek: Escobar cultivated an image of power amidst the violence and turmoil. Josh says we can only speculate about how the hippos fit into that picture.

Hammer: Apparently there were a couple of other drug lords in South America that he was emulating. There’s something about this kind of criminality and these menageries, there’s an association with power and prestige to have wild animals, to be the master of your own menagerie. This menagerie that he built up served another purpose, too, because he opened it up to the public.

He allowed local Colombians to come onto his property and do a safari in electric vehicles around the grounds. So this, of course, helped to make him a very popular figure among a lot of Colombians when he was just spreading the money around and sponsoring soccer clubs. And then this was part of the same scheme to establish roots in the community, make him a popular figure.

Klimek: Where is he keeping these animals?

Hammer: He kept them on a property called Hacienda Nápoles. It’s about three hours east of Medellín. It’s a big area. He built artificial lakes and his mansion, his villa there, and he had 1,500 people working on the grounds, free-roaming menagerie of animals, helicopter pad, dinosaur theme park, just some other weird stuff. There was also a bull ring, et cetera, et cetera.

Klimek: How did the hippos end up roaming freely outside of the grounds of the hacienda?

Hammer: So there were never any real borders of this hacienda. It was carved out of the wilderness. So within a few days of his being killed, a lot of people stormed the grounds. They ripped everything apart looking for money, looking for weapons. The place was in chaos. The staff fled, and nobody came back to tend the animals.

The animals for a while were living on their own. After it fell into disrepair, it was eventually taken over by a private corporation and reborn as a safari park. I understand from talking to an official in the local government who was a young man in those days that there were electric vehicles that would take you around and let you tour the savanna. Elephants would come over to the vehicles and stick their trunk, just like an imitation African safari.

Finally, the government decided to do something about it, so this would’ve been about maybe ’98, ’99. They gathered up the animals, and they shipped most of them off to three zoos in Colombia. But nobody wanted to get near the hippos because they were frightened of them, and so the hippos were left to their own devices. By that time, there may have been 10, 12, I’m not sure, but, I mean, the females can produce a baby every year and a half, and they can be incredibly fertile.

Klimek: Then an almost Shakespearean power struggle began to play out.

Hammer: The oldest male born of these three female hippos wanted to be the alpha male and basically killed his own father and established a new hippo pod, and that’s the dynamic that happens. A male hippo will get in a fight with the alpha male and be exiled from the herd and then have to go off and find his own environment and wander off a few kilometers, get a female or two—boom, a new hippo herd is created. And this is what’s been happening slowly over the decades. Some of these hippos have been spotted like 50 miles outside of the boundaries of the Hacienda Nápoles. So they can really wander far.

Klimek: How are the hippos in the region faring now?

Hammer: I think they’re thriving. They don’t have any natural predators. They’re not hunted, and they have access to a lot of water and a lot of fruit and a lot of vegetables and a lot of vegetation, all the things that hippos need. So they’re doing very well.

Klimek: And why does that present a threat to people and to the environment?

Hammer: I think there is this exaggerated threat about just how dangerous hippos are. I mean, you often see media reports of them being the most dangerous animal. I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I think that they can be aggressive. I think generally they’re pretty gentle. It’s sort of like, you leave me alone, I’ll leave you alone.

But from what I understand, if you get pretty dense human populations and pretty dense hippo populations competing for the same territory—fishermen on the rivers and people settling the land along the rivers—and so you get a lot of opportunities for hippo-human clashes. Last year in a schoolyard, one hippo just wandered in, and kids were scared, teachers running every which way. And if you’re on a boat, they can come up underneath and drown you. They’re not totally harmless animals.

Klimek: The presence of hippos has also changed the Magdalena River itself.

Hammer: Another reason that people are concerned is just because they produce an awful lot of excrement. They can really pollute water resources. They’re an invasive species. They don’t really belong there. So the local species that are there, like the capybaras, the tortoises, other animals, it’s rapidly changing the biome and possibly threatening these other animals. Algae, bacteriological contamination, there definitely seems to be something going on with the water in Colombia in these areas.

Klimek: How have authorities tried to solve the problem of this exploding hippo population in Colombia?

Hammer: The first thing they did was way back in the early 2000s, a professional hunter was hired, and he actually shot and killed a hippo that had wandered about 50 miles or so outside the hacienda and then posed with the corpse of his hippo, and it created a huge uproar in Colombia. I believe this was 2008, maybe 2009. Then there was a series of protests in Bogotá, and all across Colombia people were outraged and distraught. The minister of the environment had to resign, and they basically declared a moratorium on killing hippos.

They started to try to dart hippos in the wild and do these castrations. That didn’t really work, because the tranquilizers take a while to have an effect, and it was dangerous to follow these hippos around, and so the hippos would generally disappear. They managed to do this once. They were able to track a hippo and castrate it after the tranquilizer knocked him out.

And then they tried chemical castrations, where they would dart it with a chemical. But the problem with that method is that they would have to use a two-step process, and it was almost impossible to track the hippo to deliver the second dart two months later. So that didn’t work.

They tried to cordon off the hacienda, but that didn’t work either, because first of all, many of the hippos had already left the hacienda, and second of all, the property was too large. They couldn’t really construct anything strong enough to keep the animals in, so that didn’t work.

They tried getting international zoos to take the hippos, and that created a huge protest among environmental groups who didn’t believe that the resources should be spent with this translocation program. And most zoos didn’t want them anyway, so that didn’t work.

Finally, last year, they began this aggressive surgical castration campaign using traps and corrals and trying to lure the animals into these corrals, keeping them trapped, and then sterilizing them on the spot, and that has had a certain amount of success. So they’ve done about ten so far. The project began in earnest in October, and from what I understand, they were forced to stop for a couple of months because of a contract renegotiation and budget disputes.

But now they apparently have picked it up again. So it’s averaging one and a half a month or something. They say that they need to sterilize at least 40 a year to keep the population from growing. So they’re falling short, and it’s a really difficult procedure. They’re getting better at it, clearly, but it still doesn’t seem to be sufficient to deal with the numbers.


Rebecca Lewison: I remember somebody telling me, and I thought, “What? That can’t be right. There’s no way. How would there be hippos in Colombia?”

Klimek: Rebecca Lewison is an ecologist at San Diego State University. She’s also co-chair of the Hippo Specialist Group of IUCN, an international conservation organization. She mostly spends her time worrying about hippos in Africa, but at some point in the late ’90s or early 2000s, she started getting inquiries about the Colombian hippos.

Lewison: I’ve never been to Colombia, but what it looks like is a paradise for hippos, water everywhere, grass everywhere. I mean, I can see why they are thriving.

Klimek: We went to Rebecca for some more in-depth information about hippo biology, conservation, and some ideas for a potential solution in Colombia. But we began the conversation by asking: What’s it like to see a hippo up close in the wild?

Lewison: It’s just like, “Oh, my God, they’re so big,” which is kind of dumb, since you know they’re this massive animal. But when you first see them in the water, you just see that the top surface of their heads and their backs, and then when they actually come out, it’s the iceberg, there’s a lot under there.

Klimek: What makes it hard to study hippos in the wild?

Lewison: The challenge with hippos in the wild is when you go to a place that has hippos, they’re seemingly everywhere, which is not, of course, really true, but you’ll see a lot of them. They all come together and bunch up in rivers or lakes, but they’re really tough to study. And so compared to even other big gray things like elephants and rhinos, we really know comparatively little about them, because they are essentially marine mammals. They’re in the water all day and they only come out at night to feed.

So nighttime is a tough time to be doing fieldwork, not super safe, and most of the places where they’re in the water, you can’t get in there with them. It’s a hundred percent not safe either because of hippos or because of crocodiles, and the water is not clear, so we don’t really know what’s happening.

Other things that make them really hard to study is they basically don’t have a neck. So most of the ways that we put collars on animals, it goes around their neck, and they don’t have a neck. They use their neck, and so collaring them doesn’t really work.

And in another just crazy turn of events, they are very difficult to chemically immobilize or tranquilize. We don’t really understand it, but they tend to not do well with all the drugs that we use for elephants and rhinos. It’s just made it really hard to study them and learn really basic things like who’s related to who.

Identifying individuals is really tough, because we don’t really see much of them. Counting hippos is really hard, and you’d say, “Well, why? They’re massive, 4,000, 5,000 pounds.” But they’re in the water, and counting things in the water is really tough. They submerge. They don’t just stay. It’s not like you can say, “OK, everybody out of the water. I have to count you.” We’re increasingly using drones, but even with that, that can cause disturbance, so maybe a hippo will go underwater.

Klimek: What’s the biggest threat to hippos in their native habitat now?

Lewison: The biggest threat is definitely habitat loss. They require freshwater, and that really puts them at the crosshairs of people who also really rely on freshwater. And that’s probably the most valuable and limited resource on Earth, is freshwater, and it really puts them in direct conflict with people.

Right behind that is a threat that is here but is potentially intensifying, which is just the impacts of climate change, because we know that impacts water quality and quantity. But I think it really all of that boils down to they just are running out of places to be.

Klimek: Where are global hippo populations now, generally?

Lewison: We don’t have great, great counts of them, but we think there’s about 200,000 to 300,000, which is surprisingly few. That’s even less elephants than there are. From a conservation perspective, there’s certainly populations in countries where hippo populations seem to be stable—those are typically in eastern and southern Africa—and definitely countries where hippo populations are declining, which is absolutely in western African countries. And in large part that is actually driven by just large-scale habitat loss.

So overall the conservation outlook is not great. They are listed on the IUCN Red List, which is our international way of keeping track of the conservation status of animals, and they are listed as vulnerable because of that. And just increasingly, we just have concerns about their viability going forward.

Klimek: The hippo situation in Colombia is completely unprecedented, so Rebecca says she has to look to African hippos for answers about what’s going on.

Lewison: Hippos in Africa really exhibit this sort of boom-bust cycle oftentimes, particularly in places where the water and grass resources vary a lot within a year, which is a lot of places in eastern, southern Africa that have a dry season and a wet season. When there’s a drought, hippo populations can crash, a lot of mortality, both of adults and absolutely of juveniles because of either not enough water or not enough resources.

What we also see for hippo populations, which is what makes a lot of us optimistic for a future for hippos, is that they respond very well to good conditions. When there’s a lot of rain and a lot of water, we see hippo populations flourish and really grow and expand and increase very quickly, and that’s certainly what they seem to have in Colombia.

One thing that I think is interesting in Colombia is I think they’re spending a lot more time out of the water than hippos do in Africa, in part because the climate, it’s humid, it’s much more forgiving for a hippo. They have pretty sensitive skin, which is funny to say because they also are known to have some of the thickest skin, but there’s some sensitivity around them. Without water, they will die, or moisture, but I think they have that. And so maybe that’s another reason that people are really connecting to them is they can see them so much more than you can in the African context.

Klimek: Many places, non-native animal populations have been controlled by introducing predator species. Why would that not work here?

Lewison: I just don’t know what you’d introduce. The largest predator to the hippo, the most pervasive threat from predation for hippos is people. It is true that in Africa, lions, they will hunt younger hippos, smaller hippos. I don’t think we want to introduce African lions to Colombia. They certainly have their own carnivores, but it’s just not going to happen. There just isn’t anything bigger. Dinosaurs? We’ve all seen that movie, so we know how that goes.

We don’t have an option here of going up the food chain. Their skin is that thick. Save with a gun, they’re pretty hard to kill, and I don’t think there’s going to be a strategy to introduce anything that’s big enough to get them. And honestly, predation just doesn’t have a big impact even in African settings. It’s really the environment that controls hippo populations.

Klimek: How do you feel about the possibility of culling these hippos? Should that be considered as a potential solution?

Lewison: It’s a tough question, again, because of how I think folks in the area have really identified with the hippos, absolutely are concerned about animal welfare, and I obviously take all of that very seriously as well. I just don’t think at this point there’s any really good solutions. The good solution needed to come in 1993, and we’re way beyond that. So now the situation where we are, the fork in the road, I do think that this approach makes sense.

I honestly do worry about the potential of hippo-human conflict. I’ve spent a lot of time with hippos. I don’t find them to be particularly aggressive, but in areas where they are constantly under pressure, the analogy I typically use, the first time someone, if they break into your house, you’re surprised. By time ten, if someone breaks into your house, you’re ready to attack. And I think that’s where we see a lot of hippo-human conflict that have led to human fatalities.

Typically, I’m one of the people that when there is an attack that people call and say, “What can you tell us? What should we do?” And in the African settings, I think I wouldn’t get in a boat, in a canoe. I’m not interested in those trips because I am the person who hears about all of them that go south. I feel differently about being on land around hippos, but in the water in particular, there’s not much you can do. If a hippo is under threat and they’re coming for you, that’s not the time to be saying, “Well, what could I have done differently in this situation?”

But yeah, there really aren’t any easy answers here in terms of protecting people, which I think is the most at the top of the list. Of course, protecting hippos, but I would put in front of that even protecting the native plants and animals. This is their national treasure and something that I know they want to protect.

Klimek: So taking into account everything you’ve been saying about how this is a complex problem and none of the potential solutions are particularly good, what would be your recommendation as to how to balance human needs and wildlife needs?

Lewison: I think we’re on the path. The folks that I’ve talked to and heard from are trying to be thoughtful to all of the sides, to the people who feel connected to the animals, obviously to the animals themselves and their welfare, but also to the native plants and animals. And I think we are now hopefully moving toward the place of making this somewhat more sustainable. Of course, I have those fears of potential conflict if the population does grow. You hear stories of people getting gored by bison in Yellowstone. That’s because people do dumb things around wild animals. And even though these are animals that are not from here, they are still wild.

What I always want people to understand is the place where hippos are from is Africa, and the place where they really need desperate attention and support and conservation action is Africa, because while they’re thriving in Colombia, they are not thriving in the land where they have evolved. And that’s where I spend most of my time, is really trying to get organizations and governments and agencies to collaborate and coordinate so we can come up with sustainable conservation plans that absolutely protect people and their livelihoods and hippos and their ability to persist into the future.

I love that there’s a whole new group of people who didn’t even know about hippos, had never even thought about them, and now care about them, and I just hope that that extends to caring about hippos where they’re from.

Klimek: Rebecca Lewison is a conservation ecologist and professor at San Diego State University. She’s the director of SDSU’s Institute for Ecological Management and Monitoring. Thank you, Rebecca. This has been a fascinating talk.

Lewison: Great to talk with you, Chris. Thanks so much.


Klimek: To read Josh Hammer’s reporting about the Colombian hippos, go to SmithsonianMag.com. We’ll put a link to it in our show notes along with links to some of Lewison’s work. This week’s dinner party fact goes back to a time and place where hippos were presented as a potential solution to a problem rather than the cause of one—equally shocking, though.

Donny Bajohr: Hey, everyone. I’m Donny Bajohr, one of three photo editors here at the magazine, and I have a tasty treat for you for this episode’s dinner party fact. In the early 20th century, America had a problem—actually, two problems. They had a meat shortage and they had an invasive species in the South, the hyacinth. So Congressman Robert Broussard brought a bill to the House to solve both problems with one animal: the hippo. He wanted to bring over the hippo to eat up some hyacinth and feed Americans. Congressman Broussard’s bill didn’t pass, but it’s too bad, because I would love to hang a fang in some hippo meat.

Klimek (laughing): “Hang a fang!” Did you just come up with that?

Bajohr: You never heard that phrase?

Klimek: No. “Hang a fang.” I love it.

Klimek: “There’s More to That” is a production of Smithsonian magazine and PRX Productions. From the magazine, our team is me, Debra Rosenberg and Brian Wolly. From PRX, our team is Jessica Miller, Genevieve Sponsler, Adriana Rozas Rivera, Ry Dorsey and Edwin Ochoa. The executive producer of PRX Productions is Jocelyn Gonzales. Our episode artwork is by Emily Lankiewicz. Fact-checking by Stephanie Abramson. Our music is from APM Music.

I’m Chris Klimek. Thank you for listening.

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