On Tuesday, 14 July 2009, I received a phone call from a Colombian radio asking if I would agree to be interviewed. “About what?” I asked. “Drug lord, Pablo Escobar’s hippos”, they answered.
I was a bit startled knowing that Pablo Escobar had been assassinated back in 1993. I was afraid that maybe they had mistaken me for an accomplice or something of the sort and they were going to gun me down like they did the deceased Escobar. What I didn’t know is that the Colombian drug lord, one of the richest men on earth then, had a hacienda (ranch) where he had kept many exotic wild animals shipped in from different parts of this earth.
Of these were four hippos which Escobar had bought from New Orleans in the 1080s. When Escobar was gunned down in 1993, the Colombian authorities who took over the ranch did not know what to do with the hippos and so left them to roam the 20 km² Hacienda Napoles (Naples Estate).
In June 2009, three of the now more than 20 hippos escaped the Hacienda and were said to be roaming in the neighbourhood, destroying crops and threatening humans and their livestock. The Colombian Authorities after several complaints by residents and recommendation by security people, gave a go ahead for the hunting and killing these three ‘dangerous’ hippos.
One of them was killed in June this year leading to uproar from conservation organizations in the country and elsewhere. And that’s why they were calling me to ask me if it was okey to kill the hippo. Whether we do that in Africa where hippos come from and specifically, what the situation would be in Kenya.
Well, my answers were simple: killing hippos is illegal in Kenya not only because they are classified as vulnerable species by the IUCN but also protected by Kenyan law. I however explained that in the event that a hippo kills a human being, the Kenya Wildlife Service is allowed by law to terminate the offending hippos life.
When asked what the authorities should do about the hippos, I said that the hippos should be captured by the wildlife authorities and brought back to the Hacienda. They should then ensure that they are contained within the ranch.
It is wrong that the hippos had been transported all the way from Africa, and then to New Orleans, and then to Escobar’s Hacienda, but since the mistake had been committed, then the only option is for proper and scientific management of the population. Not hunting them down like…er…criminals.
I was also asked whether the hippos should be brought back to Africa, of which I said that that would carry a huge cost that would be unnecessary. I would opt that such funds be spent in conservation of the hacienda hippos, or protecting hippos that are in Africa.
The situation with Escobar’s hippos could have been avoided if they were not shipped all the way from Africa to the hacienda. It all boils down to the question of trade in live animals, either legal or otherwise, especially species that are in danger of extinction. Large mammals like hippos, having found a place that they can thrive, and without their natural enemies, are likely to increase in number quite rapidly. These particular hippos had increased from 4 to more than 20 in less than 30 years.
Again, it is natural for hippos, and indeed all animals, once they become numerous and start to feel the strain of increased competion for available resources, to seek new territory with more resources. The lack of management of this hacienda population was in my opinion the cause of the need for the three hippos to move out. Chances are that this will happen again as the population continues to increase.
It is being reported that the Colombian authorities have called off the hunt for the other two hippos after the protest from conservation organizations for now. Some zoos have even offered to take at least one hippo each. We do hope that they find a solution to the problem. A solution that does not involve hunting down the hippos, and brutally murdering them.