By Ana Gomez
BOGOTA – The hippopotamuses that late Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar kept on the grounds of his luxurious hacienda are facing a serious risk of death after the government authorized hunting the beasts, a move that has generated harsh criticism from animal protection activists.
The authorization has been temporarily suspended while authorities wait for some zoo in Colombia to agree to take charge of the animals, according to Luis Alfonso Escobar, an official in the northwestern province of Antioquia.
The problem is what to do with the more than 20 hippos now occupying Escobar’s Hacienda Napoles spread on the banks of the Magdalena River.
The controversy surrounding the animals, which the kingpin had shipped in from Africa in the early 1980s, was sparked last month when hunters and soldiers killed a male hippo that had escaped in 2006 along with a female.
The female and a baby hippo, who was born and grew up in the wild over the past years, continue to roam around the vicinity of the town of Puerto Berrio.
Hacienda Napoles, nowadays a tourist destination, is 3,000 hectares (7,400 acres) in size, has hotels, 20 artificial lakes, a landing strip big enough to handle a C-130 Hercules military transport aircraft and even has a replica of the aircraft that Escobar used to ship his first batch of cocaine out of the country.
Among all the eccentricities at Napoles, one of the most attractive is the zoo that the defunct Medellin cartel chief stocked with more than 1,500 animal species imported from all over the world.
Since the abandonment and later expropriation of Hacienda Napoles by the Colombian state, some of the animals have escaped into the wild, like several of the hippos, others were stolen and others died from lack of proper care.
Even so, the work to renovate the property has resulted in the creation there of fish, reptile, butterfly and bird ecosystems, as well as the community of hippos.
Starting with the escape of the two hippos, an avalanche of complaints began pouring in from local fishermen and peasant farmers about the beasts’ destruction of their crops, local fish and other livestock.
“A double strategy was tried: on the one hand the 22 hippos that remained at Hacienda Napoles were being controlled and on the other the management, capture and relocation of the specimens were being worked out,” Colombia’s deputy environment minister, Claudia Mora, told Efe.
But Colombian zoos refused to accept the gigantic mammals due to their high maintenance costs and doubts about the state of their health, and after two years of debate the Neotropical Forest Life Foundation asked environmental authorities for a “hunting permit.”
The ministry authorized the permit request, a decision – Mora said – that was in accord with situations in which exotic species cause “a negative effect of large social magnitude, like the hippopotamuses, which transmit diseases to the native fauna and are designated as highly dangerous.”
Former Environment Minister Juan Lozano expressed his disagreement with the hunting order, saying that “the effort has to be to capture them, not to mount a show where you don’t have shooting at targets but rather shooting at a hippo.”
Animal protection organizations have been in the forefront of the criticism of the government’s plan and have called on the international community to take charge of the female and her offspring.
Officials in Antioquia say that several offers from zoos have been received in the past few days to take in at least one of the animals.
This could be the last chance the hippos have to get out of their brewing dilemma alive. EFE