Benedict Spence

The strange case of Colombia’s cocaine hippos

  • From Spectator Life
Hippos in the former zoo of Pablo Escobar (Getty)

When I first heard the expression ‘cocaine hippo,’ my initial thoughts were that it must either be a reference to some sort of industrial scale drug mule operation, or that someone was being rude about Mitch McConnell.  In fact, the origins of the cocaine hippo aren’t far from the former, but are even more outlandish than you might expect. 

In the 1980s, when he wasn’t becoming the world’s richest drug kingpin or going to war with the government, Pablo Escobar indulged his various passions: he bought a football team, grew Colombia’s most lustrous moustache (no mean feat in those days) and opened a private zoo on his estate outside Medellin, Hacienda Napoles. There, he imported rare and exotic species for the entertainment of his young children, including zebras, giraffes and elephants. 

Denying feral hippos their right to procreate is not straightforward, though, nor something to which they are particularly accommodating.

You might think it strange for someone to spend their money on something so impractical, but Escobar had more money than he could spend. Besides, part time zoology is nothing new to high-status men with dark sides and god complexes. 

Like much of his menagerie, Escobar was himself something of an endangered species, and when he went the way endangered species tend to, his animals were repossessed by the authorities, and taken to other, more reputable zoos and sanctuaries. All, that is, except the hippos. The four hippopotamuses Escobar had imported posed a problem; they weren’t quite endangered enough to make relocation a priority, and were sufficiently large and aggressive enough to make moving them off-putting. So instead, they were abandoned, and left to roam free; Hacienda Napoles’ very own Bourbons. 

That was in 1993, and since then, the hippos (three females and a male) have been busy. Not content with their small kingdom, they have done what hippos do — seeking out sustenance, going forth and multiplying.

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