Yes, Pablo Escobar's 'cocaine hippos' are an invasive species, but scientists say they're not all bad

Pablo Escobar hippos Colombia Medellin
Pablo Escobar hippos Colombia Medellin

REUTERS/Daniel Munoz

  • Drug lord Pablo Escobar kept four hippos at the illegal zoo on his estate. 

  • When he was shot in 1993, the hippos were left to fend for themselves. There are now up to 100 of the animals living in the Magdelena River. 

  • The hippos are invasive and might displace some native species, and they can also be aggressive. But some scientists say they are not without their benefits. 

  • The large animals might be helping the environment by doing things like tunneling nutrients from land to water and keeping grassy plants maintained by eating them.

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Drug lord Pablo Escobar was reportedly very fond of the four hippopotamuses he kept at the illegal zoo on his luxurious Columbian estate. When he was shot dead in 1993, the hippos were left to fend for themselves and, so far, they have been thriving.

There are now as many as 100 “cocaine hippos” living in the country’s main river, the Magdelena, Jonathan Shurin, an ecologist with University of California San Diego told Christie Wilcox of National Geographic.

 “Within a couple of decades, there could be thousands of them,” he said.

The animals — like Escobar himself — have caused a bit of a problem for the Columbian government.

They’re considered an invasive species, and could eventually displace other animals like otters and manatees. They also have a tendency to be territorial or aggressive but haven’t seriously injured anyone yet.

The animals, which are native to Africa, also have impacts on the landscape, because they feed on land and excrete their waste in the water, altering the water’s chemistry, National Geographic reported.

They’re so large, that just moving their bodies around can change the structure of wetlands.

It’s expensive and dangerous to move or castrate them and when one hippo was killed in 2009, the public was outraged, so culling is not really an option either, Wilcox wrote.

For a research project funded by the National Geographic Society, Shurin teamed up with Nelson Aranguren-Riaño from the Universidad Pedagógica y Tecnológica de Colombia. 

The scientists compared human-made lakes where the hippos spend time in to ones they don’t and found slight differences, National Geographic reported last week.

“Hippo lakes have different chemistry and biology than no-hippo lakes,” Shurin said about the research published in January. 

While they aren’t perfect, some scientists are looking at the bright side of the rewilding of the infamous drug lord’s beloved pets.

Pablo Escobar Colombia hippos Medellin
Pablo Escobar Colombia hippos Medellin

REUTERS/Albeiro Lopera

In a 2017 letter in the journal Perspectives in Ecology and Conservation, Jens-Christian Svenning, a biologist with Aarhus University in Denmark, argued that the hippos might contribute “ecosystem services.” 

South America lost dozens of giant herbivore species in the last 20,000 years and the rewilding of the hippos could bring back the services that they once provided, like funneling nutrients from land to water and keeping grassy plants maintained by eating them.


pablo escobar
pablo escobar


“Hippos could likely contribute a partial restoration of these effects, likely benefiting native biodiversity overall,” Svenning told National Geographic.

Other than what they can contribute to biodiversity, the mere survival of the local celebrities is a feat on its own, Arian Wallach, an ecologist with the University of Technology in Sydney, told the magazine.

“The fact that there are wild hippopotamuses in South America [is] a wonderful story of survival, of agency, of pioneering,” she told Wilcox.

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