Story at a glance

  • Escobar collected a range of illegally imported animals, including hippos, at his estate in the 1980s.
  • The species have since thrived in the region lying between Medellín and Bogotá, living in lakes and waterways around the Rio Magdalena.
  • Now a group of scientists is warning that the species’ numbers could soon be impossible to control and their environmental impact irreversible.

The legacy of notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar is posing a major threat to the countryside and wetlands surrounding his former palace in Colombia as a colony of the largest invasive species on the planet is on track to grow unabated. 

Escobar, the founder of the world’s largest cocaine empire in the 1980s, collected a range of illegally imported animals at his estate in Puerto Triunfo, Colombia, which included hippos, kangaroos, giraffes, elephants and other exotic animals. 


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In 1993, Escobar’s reign came to an end when he was gunned down by police in a shootout. While most of the animals in Escobar’s collection were relocated by authorities or died following Escobar’s demise, the massive hippos were left behind and have grown in numbers in the region over the decades. 

The species have since thrived in the region lying between Medellín and Bogotá, living in lakes and waterways around the Rio Magdalena. 

Now a group of scientists is warning that the species’ numbers could soon be impossible to control and their environmental impact irreversible. 

The number of hippos, which began with just four, has increased in the last eight years from 35 to as many as 80, and a study published last month in the journal Biological Conservation estimates numbers could reach around 1,500 by 2035 if the animals are not culled. 

The growth in population could threaten residents in the area, as hippos kill more people each year in Africa than any other wildlife species. The animals also have no natural predators in Colombia. 

A separate study conducted last year also found the hippos are changing the quality of the water they spend much of their time in due to their waste. 

Researchers say the government’s efforts to catch and sterilize hippos have largely done nothing to curb the increase in the animal’s numbers, due to the expensive and complicated process. 

“I believe that it is one of the greatest challenges of invasive species in the world,” Nataly Castelblanco-Martínez, an ecologist at the University of Quintana Roo in Mexico and lead author of the study, told The Associated Press (AP). 

But the idea of culling the hippos has received pushback from locals who have embraced the animals due to tourism money they bring into the area. AP reports there was backlash years ago after one hippo escaped from the estate turned theme park and was killed by a hunter. As a result, the government banned the hunting of the animals. 


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Published on Feb 10, 2021