How a pet hippo avoided a death squad (unlike her drug baron owner)

Author: By Guy Adams

The creature, part of a menagerie imported from Africa to fill Escobar’s personal zoo, escaped from captivity during a storm three years ago along with her mate Pepe, and seemed doomed to die at the hands of a crack team of soldiers charged with locating them.

This week photographs of Pepe’s corpse were published in the Colombian media, sparking outrage and mass protests by Colombia’s vociferous animal rights lobby. Pepe had been killed by a .375 rifle bullet through the heart last month, as he waddled near the Magdalena River, a short distance from Puerto Berrio, the town from where Escobar once controlled the world’s cocaine supply. His body was surrounded by victorious gun-toting soldiers in a pose that recalled the glory days of Edwardian big game hunting.

The escaped hippos had been held responsible for killing livestock and damaging fencing, and were considered a threat to farmers and fishing communities by Colombia’s Environment Ministry.

Until yesterday, the net seemed to be closing in on Matilda and her calf Hip, who she had given birth to in the wild. However the hunt was suddenly called off, when one of the country’s biggest breweries, Bavaria, offered to pay for experts from Africa to be brought in to take the creatures into captivity. “We have accepted Bavaria’s offer,” said a spokesman for the Environment Ministry. “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.”

Matilda and Hip are likely to be returned to Hacienda Napoles, the once-extraordinary, 5,500-acre ranch where Escobar ran his empire until his bloody death in 1993, at the age of 44. At the height of his power and influence, when he was estimated by Forbes to be the world’s seventh richest man, Escobar turned the estate into a bizarre personal playground, installing fishing lakes, stables, and even a personal bullring.

He imported hundreds of exotic animals, including camels, giraffes, buffalos, Indian elephants, rhinos, and even a collection of kangaroos, which he used to spend days attempting to domesticate. One kangaroo was famously taught to entertain guests by playing football.

After Escobar’s death, the animals were moved to Colombian zoos, with the exception of about 20 hippos, which were thought to be too difficult and dangerous to capture and transport.

Today the hippos are a big draw for tourists who visit Hacienda Napoles, which is being turned into an “eco-park”. About 50,000 visitors come to the site each year, and a five-star hotel is under construction in its grounds.

The decision to kill the three escapees was taken after they were held responsible for killing six cows belonging to local farmers, and causing severe damage to expensive fencing. The local community, understandably concerned by the presence of South America’s only wild hippos on their doorstep, supported the government’s extermination plans but the move sparked outrage among Columbia’s well-financed animal rights lobby.

Hundreds of protesters, many wearing hippo masks, picketed the Environment Ministry earlier this week, demanding a repeal of what they described as a “death sentence”. The organiser of the protest, Marcela Ramirez, president of the Animal and Environmental Protection Network, told reporters: “It is an outrage that the same government that allows the torture of bullfighting and cockfighting is now endorsing the murder of hippopotamuses.”

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