Pablo Escobar's Hippos Are Breeding Out Of Control, And It's Becoming A Problem

Pablo Escobar: kingpin and... animal lover? In the 1980s, Escobar's zoo at Hacienda Nápoles took shape, filled with exotic animals, including hippos. The zoo was only functional for about 10 years before the Colombian government claimed it, but during its heyday, Escobar allowed locals to explore it for free. He even bussed children to the zoo.

Today, however, those hippos are causing quite the uproar in Colombia. While hippos aren't native to South America, that hasn't stopped them from making a home in Colombia, wandering away from Hacienda Nápoles, and multiplying quickly. These hippos haven't hurt anyone yet, but it's likely only a matter of time before these sometimes dangerous animals get too close to humans for comfort.

  • The Animals In Escobar's Zoo Were Relocated - Except For The Hippos
    Photo: Jess Kraft /

    The Animals In Escobar's Zoo Were Relocated - Except For The Hippos

    After Hacienda Nápoles was taken over by the government, officials moved the animals to zoos - except for the hippos, which stayed. It's unclear why exactly the hippos remained. Perhaps they were too difficult to move. Or maybe they were well suited to Colombia, where the shallow rivers accommodate their needs, and the weather helps them thrive. In native Africa, meanwhile, droughts naturally cull hippo populations. 

    The hippos love Colombia so much that they're mating at least six years earlier than they do in Africa. Hippos in Africa begin this process around 7-9 for males and 9-11 for females; Escobar's hippos start reproducing at age three. With females giving birth each year, the population is growing fast.

  • Four Hippos Have Become Many, Many More

    Four Hippos Have Become Many, Many More

    Escobar kept four hippos at his zoo, one male and three females. After the zoo was seized and the hippos were left to their own devices, the animals multiplied quickly. The herd is growing around 6% per year, and some have moved at least 90 miles away from Hacienda Nápoles.

    Today, there are reportedly as many as 50 hippos that descend from Escobar's original four, and experts say there could be close to 100 in another decade.

  • There Are No Reports Of The Hippos Going After People

    There Are No Reports Of The Hippos Going After People

    Hippos are potentially perilous to humans in certain situations, but they haven't caused any problems for people in Colombia yet. Hippos don't naturally want to be aggressive, but if you are in their territory, they will come after you.

    Though Escobar's hippos continue to thrive, they haven't bothered anyone. That could change as the hippos continue to breed and their territory continues to spread. 

  • Some Locals Don't Know How To Interact With Hippos

    Some Locals Don't Know How To Interact With Hippos

    In 2007, villagers began calling the Ministry of Environment in Bogota, saying they'd seen something strange: a large animal with small ears and a big mouth. A vet, Carlos Valderrama, went to check out the situation and found a hippo. 

    Valderrama worries that Colombians don't realize just how unsafe hippos can be to humans. According to a local newspaper, some children have even attempted to keep hippo calves as pets.

  • The Colombian Government Had To Put Down One Hippo

    The Colombian Government Had To Put Down One Hippo

    In 2009, the Colombian government authorized the termination of Pepe, a descendant of Escobar's original hippos. Pepe had become quite the troublemaker, bulldozing through crops and fences and slaying cows. Colombian soldiers cornered Pepe, while two professional hunters performed the task.

    A photo of the soldiers posing with Pepe's body caused an outcry. One protestor was furious, upset that a country that already allows animal fighting would be slaying hippos.

    The government wanted to put down Pepe's mate and baby, as well, but the uproar forced them to call it off. 

  • There's No Easy Solution For Dealing With The Hippos

    There's No Easy Solution For Dealing With The Hippos

    The obvious solution to the hippo population boom is to relocate them. But of course, they're thousands of pounds, meaning they would need to be moved via truck and helicopter after being sedated. And the hippos can't return to Africa, as they've been in South America and could have diseases to which African hippos wouldn't have immunity.

    Neutering a hippo is difficult and risky for both the vet and the animal, and captivity is only a real option for calves. Some hippo calves have been taken to zoos, but few zoos request the adults.

    Building a nature reserve for the hippos is by far the nicest option. But Colombia is a developing country, and building hippo-proof fences would cost around half a million dollars. Corralling the hippos into the reserve would also be difficult and costly.

    A biologist who works in the Amazon suggested Colombians hunt and eat the hippos. It is not advisable to eat hippos, however - they can carry leptospirosis, which can cause meningitis.