The heated debate about a drug lord’s killed hippopotamus

Por: Thomas Sparrow, tsparrow@semana.com

Huge controversy in Colombia after it was revealed that an African hippo originally brought to the country by the late drug lord Pablo Escobar has been killed with the help of the Army.

At the end of last week, a curious photo was published in Colombia. It showed the carcass of a huge male hippopotamus, lying on the grass in Antioquia province, surrounded by sixteen heavily armed soldiers. The immense animal, which once belonged to Colombia’s most famous drug lord, Pablo Escobar, was shot dead by hunters with the consent of Corantioquia, a regional organization which sets out to protect natural resources, and with assistance from Colombia’s Army.

The hippo was originally brought from Africa by Escobar, who wanted to create a haven in Puerto Triunfo, Antioquia, where he could be surrounded by all sorts of wild animals: Australian kangaroos, Saharan dromedaries, Indian elephants, giraffes, buffalos, dolphins and wild birds. He personally tried for many years to domesticate his ‘pets’ and even taught a kangaroo to play football. If the animals were seized by the authorities, he quickly bought them back, irrespective of the methods or the price. After the drug baron’s death, in 1993, his farm was taken over by the small town of Puerto Triunfo with supervision by Colombia’s National Narcotics Directorate (DNE, in Spanish) and has become a theme park that is visited by tourists from over the world. It has still got around 20 hippopotamuses, apart from the two that escaped a couple of years ago down Colombia’s main river, the Magdalena. These are precisely the ones that are in the midst of the debate: they had been living freely until Corantioquia gave the order to shoot them dead. One was Pepe, who was recently killed, whereas his female companion, plus a baby hippo, are still on the loose.

When the photo was released and it became known that the hippo’s life had been taken away, the news spread both nationally and internationally and the controversy began. The regional body stated that it had come to the decision because the hippo had allegedly been attacking local fishermen and could spread dangerous diseases. It argued that it had not been able to find them a proper place to live, although two zoos in the country, one in Pereira and the other near Bogotá, have confirmed that they are willing to care for the animals. Furthermore, it confirmed it had acted according to a law which allows controlled hunting if exotic animals are potentially harmful to human beings. And the hippos, not a typical Colombian animal, can definitely be very aggressive. Carlos Costa, Minister of the Environment, defended the decision because it was “only a question of time before those animals hurt someone. After more than two years of trying to capture them, the decision [to kill them] was a sound one”.

All this was criticized by NGO’s, animal charities and even by former Minister of Environment Juan Lozano, who said this had set a “fatal precedent” and that “protecting the hippo’s life was fundamental”. Journalists and columnists have also condemned the decision. Daniel Samper Pizano, one of Colombia’s most influential journalists, wrote that “the manifest inability of the authorities to stop it from escaping is only equal to their inefficiency in capturing it and finding it a home (…) The photo of the smiling soldiers next to the pink carcass of Pepe will become yet another of Colombia’s disgraces”. El Tiempo, the country’s main daily newspaper, posed a question in one of its editorials: “Was it necessary to kill Pepe in order to stop a precise problem which was not even part of the most important national concerns and, on the contrary, belonged more to a folkloric world?”( …) “We are not faced with a simple or bizarre episode. Pepe’s story and his tragic end are a syndrome: they reveal the scornful attitude to Colombia’s environmental difficulties”.

Regardless of who is right in the debate, the truth is that the hippo’s death reveals two important issues. The first one, that Colombia is definitely facing problems in dealing with the drug lords’ frequent extravagances, like cars, jewels and properties. It must not be forgotten that the DNE is having trouble getting rid of hundreds of pairs of luxury shoes, three commercial airplanes and even a black collectible Ferrari and a special edition Jaguar (see related article) which belonged to people connected with the drug trade. Animals are also highly sought after by traffickers. Escobar was not the only baron interested in them. Not long ago the authorities were worried after finding ostriches, jaguars, pumas, lions, giraffes and alligators, which belonged to former paramilitaries and drug dealers (see related article).

Second and more important, the whole situation with Pepe epitomizes Colombia’s difficulty in tackling some of the main problems it faces: a culture which revolves around the immense power of illegal money and the appetite for luxury and extravagance; the near ubiquitous influence of drug trafficking in Colombia’s recent history, and especially the fact that the country has found it impossible to resolve those issues in any way other than militarily.