More than a decade after notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar’s 1993 death, villages in rural Colombia began calling the government with sightings of a strange animal.
And as it turns out, it was Escobar’s fault it got there.
Hacienda Napoles, located halfway between the city of Medellin and Bogota, was Escobar’s sprawling ranch. In the early 1980s, Escobar busied himself by building a zoo on its grounds, one that contained smuggled elephants, giraffes and four hippos.
The ranch was confiscated in the early ’90s, and many of Escobar’s holdings were sent to zoos around the country – but not the hippos, who have continued to live in area, thriving and multiplying. (No one knows how many hippos there currently are, but the local environmental authority estimates between 50 and 60.)
“It’s just like this crazy wildlife experiment that we’re left with,” San Diego University ecologist Rebecca Lewison told the BBC. “Gosh! I hope this goes well.”
So far, it hasn’t gone so well. Valderrama says local fishermen are terrified of the massive animals, which roam the countryside at night, eating crops and “occasionally crushing small cows.”
Hippos are instinctively territorial and are often (perhaps questionably) said to cause more human deaths in Africa than any other animal. But there have been no reports of Escobar’s hippos killing anyone yet – although Lewison says the area’s sparse population may explain this.
As for what to do about them: No one’s sure, exactly. They can’t be sent back to Africa, as they may be carrying diseases. The animals breed quickly, and while a handful of calves have been transferred to Colombian zoos, takers for full-grown hippos are unsurprisingly few and far between.
While suggestions have been raised ranging from eating the hippos (not recommended, as hippo meat can contain diseases) to simply eliminating the male population, no easy solution has presented itself yet, which is a problem: International experts from the World Wildlife Fund and the Disney Foundation visited Colombia in 2010 and described the situation as a “time bomb.”
Guessing at what your legacy will be when you’re gone is a difficult and ultimately fruitless task for anyone. For Escobar, wherever he is, there’s an element of cosmic mockery at play: He was one of history’s most notorious drug lords, and 20-plus years later, the most vibrant echo of his life is a pack of semi-feral aquatic African mammals, floating lazily down a river.