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Outrage in Colombia over killing of drug kingpin's hippo; two other hippos slated for death are spared

July 21, 2009 |  3:31 pm

Hippos

Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar was once believed to be among the richest men in the world and responsible for about half of the cocaine shipped to the U.S.  When he was killed in 1993 shootout, a dispute arose over who owned his property -- which included a massive estate called Hacienda Napoles, situated in the municipality of Puerto Triunfo between the larger Colombian cities of Bogota and Medellin.

Hacienda Napoles was a sort of South American Neverland Ranch, complete with an airstrip, a bullring, giant concrete dinosaurs and a private wildlife park with elephants, zebras, giraffes, ostriches -- and four hippopotamuses.  In the years after Escobar's death, most of the animals from the reserve were claimed by zoos.  The hippos remained on the property and, by all accounts, flourished.

Since then, Hacienda Napoles, control of which was eventually given to the state over inheritance claims by Escobar's wife and children, has fallen into disrepair.  How best to deal with the notoriously aggressive hippos has long been the subject of heated debate, with some Colombians urging mercy for them and others arguing that they should be killed as a matter of public safety.

Over the years, the four original hippos multiplied to as many as 27, according to some estimates, and have taken to foraging for food.  Two of them, a male called Pepe and a female called Matilda, escaped Hacienda Napoles in 2006 and have been at large ever since.  Last month the news came that Pepe had been killed by professional hunters at the urging of an environmental agency in the state of Antioquia.  Columbia's national Environment Ministry had approved Pepe's killing and also authorized the killings of Matilda and her young calf, Hip.

Colombian animal activists were livid about the killing of Pepe and planned killings of Matilda and Hip, and staged a large-scale protest at the Environment Ministry last Tuesday.  "It is an outrage that the same government that allows the torture of bullfighting and cockfighting is now endorsing the murder of hippopotamuses," the protest's organizer, Marcela Ramirez of the Animal and Environmental Protection Network, told Times staff writer Chris Kraul. 

But government officials said they had no choice but to kill the hippos. Kraul reports:

Antioquia official Luis Alfonso Escobar said the kill order was issued "as a last resort" because the three animals had become public nuisances and safety hazards, killing seven calves, destroying crops and knocking down several fences.

The official said the hippos could also be carrying unnamed diseases and present a threat to the ecosystem. 

Things were looking dire for Matilda and her calf until late last week, when a Colombian brewing company called Bavaria offered to hire African wildlife experts to capture them unharmed. 

"We have accepted Bavaria's offer," a spokesman for the Environment Ministry told the Independent.  "The idea is to relocate the animals. The experts, once they are here on the ground, can help with our effort at finding the best possible place for these animals to live." 

Where they'll go once they are captured is uncertain, but the Independent reports that they may end up right back at Hacienda Napoles along with the 20-some other hippos that live there.

RELATED POSTS:
Baby hippopotamus Farasi stirs up controversy at Switzerland's Basel Zoo

OTHER L.A. TIMES STORIES:
Chris Kraul's history of Escobar's hippos
Chris Kraul's report on the killing of Pepe the hippo

-- Lindsay Barnett

Photo: A herd of hippos swim in a lake at Hacienda Napoles.  Credit: Albeiro Lopera / Reuters

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