For Pablo Escobar's Transplanted Hippos, Colombia's A Wonderland

During his lifetime, legendary Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar assembled as a status symbol a private zoo, which included four hippos. In the 20 years since his death, far from their natural home in Africa, Escobar's hippos have multiplied in the wild. Veterinarian Carlos Valderrama talks to Robert Siegel about the hippos and the challenges they're presenting Colombians.

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In the annals of conspicuous consumption, the Colombian drug lord, Pablo Escobar, was second to none. Among the status symbols and playthings Escobar assembled on his ranch, Hacienda Napoles, was a private zoo that had elephants, giraffes and what's of interest to us today, four hippos - three females and one male. They are of interest to us because while Escobar has been dead for over 20 years, the questionable legacy of his hippos lives on. They have multiplied in the wild. Carlos Valderrama is a veterinarian who works with a wildlife charity called Webconserva and has consulted with the Colombian government on the hippo situation. He joins us from his home outside of Bogota. Welcome to the program.

CARLOS VALDERRAMA: Oh, hello, Robert. How are you?

SIEGEL: And tell us how many hippos do you think are living in the wild in Colombia today?

VALDERRAMA: Well, the truth is that they are very difficult to count since they live most of the time on the water. But the last prediction that we have is that there is at least 50 or 60 animals living in the wild in this moment.

SIEGEL: Fifty or 60 hippopotamuses living in the area in the wild. It must be an agreeable environment for them. What's so pro-hippo about that area?

VALDERRAMA: It's a dream for hippo. You know, Colombia is a tropical country. We have plenty of water and plenty of vegetation. We don't have any kind of ecological control for hippos since they are invasive as species. They just are reproducing happily here in Colombia.

SIEGEL: I gather that local fishermen were very surprised to discover that the waters near them suddenly were inhabited by these huge creatures from Africa.

VALDERRAMA: Yes. Yes, indeed. The real issue became a big deal for us back in 2007, when some local fishermen start talking about seeing a very odd creature with very small ears and a very big mouth around 100 miles from Hacienda Napoles.

SIEGEL: Did the local people understand that these were hippos?

VALDERRAMA: At the beginning, they didn't. They didn't know what creature was until it was explained that there was a local hippo population living in the wild but that these animals can just travel really big distances. And because we have such a big rivers, they can use just these rivers as a highways. They can get - in a week - to the Pacific coast or to the Atlantic coast.

SIEGEL: I'm just curious. Hippos are - they're dangerous. They're enormous. But there's something endearing about hippopotamus. I'm just wondering whether people in Colombia - whether children have, you know, taken to this idea? Are there people who say let's have wild hippos in Colombia? We can have - we can have jungle safaris in Colombia some day.

VALDERRAMA: Yeah. No, actually that's a funny one because hippos have these looks that - we call them the fluffy effect. They are chubby. They are big. They seem very cute and very tender. They are completely the opposite but they look like that. So there is many people here that have captured the young ones and taken home. The problem exactly that we have with that is just a disaster waiting to happen because there is plenty of reports around the world were hippos just kill people. It's just how they are. They are very territorially. They are very aggressive. And that's their nature.

SIEGEL: Doctor Valderrama is a veterinarian. He works for Webconserva, which is a wildlife charity. His concern is the burgeoning wild hippo population in Colombia. Well, thanks a lot for talking with us.

VALDERRAMA: Thank you very much, Robert.

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