- An attack on a man in rural Colombia last October has highlighted the little-known trafficking of Colombia’s notorious, and non-native, hippos.
- The roughly 70 hippos in the wild in Colombia today all originate from four animals brought over by the late drug kingpin Pablo Escobar.
- The town of Doradal near Escobar’s fabled ranch is a center of the hippo-trafficking trade, which targets calves and sells them to wealthy ranch owners as a status symbol.
- Mongabay Latam investigated how the illegal sale of hippo calves works from the inside.
The way John Aristides Saldarriaga tells it, he was out for a routine day’s fishing with friends on a lake about a mile from the fabled ranch of the late Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar.
It was Halloween, Oct. 31, 2021, and the lake near Doradal in the department of Antioquia was a known haunt of the feral hippos (Hippopotamus amphibius) that had spawned from the four hippos that Escobar had shipped over from Africa
“You don’t disturb me, I won’t disturb you,” was Saldarriaga’s philosophy to fishing in the midst of the hippos, as he tells it to me.
On that day, however, one particular hippo — a mother with a young calf — must have felt sufficiently disturbed that, as Saldarriaga puts it, she ambushed him as he was coming out of the lake. The 2-ton animal chased him down until he fell. Then it chomped down on his arm and flung him into the air.
Saldarriaga’s friends rushed him to the nearest health center, from where he was transferred to a larger hospital about 170 kilometers (106 miles) away.
“If it had wanted, it could have crushed me and … goodbye life,” Saldarriaga says today of the abrupt end to the hippo’s attack. “But it was looking at me as if it was saying, ‘I forgive you this time, but if you come back, I’ll kill you.’”
Hippo trafficking allegations
For many people in Doradal, Saldarriaga’s hometown, the fishing story is just that: a tall tale. The prevailing rumor is that Saldarriaga had been trying to capture the hippo calf to sell. It’s public knowledge in the area that wildlife traffickers trade in hippos, but the police deny it; they say they haven’t received any reports of such incidents. However, according to one of the traffickers, at least six calves hidden in trucks have passed right in front of the police station.
I contacted the Colombian Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development, but it declined to comment on the issue and referred me to the Alexander Von Humboldt Biological Resources Research Institute. Also known as the Instituto Humboldt, this is an independent center under the auspices of the environment ministry. An expert there tells me that the institute’s focus on the hippos extends to understanding the animals’ impact on local ecosystems and communities. The Regional Autonomous Corporation for the Negro and Nare River Basins, or Cornare, the local environmental authority, says it has complained about hippo trafficking to the Doradal police, but that they haven’t taken any action.
Fishing isn’t common in the lake where Saldarriaga was attacked. The water there is dense and calm, and seasoned fishers prefer going to the local stretch of the Magdalena River, which crosses almost the entire length of Colombia.
David Echeverry, a biologist with Cornare, says there would have been very few fish to catch in the lake, thanks to the contamination by the non-native hippos.
“The hippo feces together with their going in and out of the lake increase the organic load and can accelerate the eutrophication process,” he says.
In other words, the animals have turned the water into a thick green soup due to the excess of nutrients in their droppings. As a result, many of the native fish species have died off.
Echeverry also says that Sadarriaga was “very brave to fish in that lake where there is a female with a calf.”
The mother and the calf have since moved to another lake nearby, which is also home to four other hippos. When the mother goes underwater, so does the calf. At night, they roam the dry land nearby, and at dawn they return to the lake. The mother appears to be on constant alert for humans.
There aren’t any security forces preventing entry to the lake, just some rickety road signs installed a decade ago with a now-blurry image of a hippo and the word “danger.”
It was in the early 1980s when Escobar gave the order to have a male and three female hippos brought over to his ranch from Africa to complete his dream of having the biggest zoo in the world. When he died in 1993, the abandoned hippos, with no walls to contain them and with the perfect climate to thrive in, multiplied and colonized other lakes up to hundreds of miles away. Experts estimate there’s a population of around 70 hippos in the Colombian wild today.
While the animal is notorious in its native Africa as one of the most dangerous to humans, there haven’t been any deaths attributed to hippo attacks in Colombia. But the risk is always there. On May 20, 2020, a hippo attacked Luis Enrique Díaz, also in Doradal. According to Díaz, he was filling a water pump to fumigate when the hippo emerged from the water and ran him down.
More than a year later, he only leaves his house to get a few moments of sunlight before quickly disappearing back inside to avoid the curious stares of those who want to see what such an attack does on a person. He can’t work. His brother protects him from interviews and so our conversation is short. Díaz says he remembers the weight of the hippo’s legs on his body, the broken ribs, the pierced lung and the fractured leg.
In October 2021, Cornare launched its latest plan to get the wild hippo population under control: treating the animals with GonaCon, a contraceptive for both males and females. Twenty-four hippos have since been dosed using darts, according to Echeverry. They join 11 that have been chemically castrated since 2014.
GonaCon has been used in veterinary applications in China, Australia and the United States, and was donated by the latter’s Department of Agriculture for use in Colombia. While the pilot scheme has shown positive results, experts are mulling the need for a third dose for each hippo to guarantee its effectiveness. That won’t be an easy task, given the risks to the team members and the high cost of around $6,400 to $7,700 per operation.
Nataly Castelblanco, a biologist and co-author of a 2021 study on the persistence and dispersion of hippos in Colombia, says she welcomes Cornare’s initiative. But given the large number of hippos already living in Colombia, sterilization and contraception strategies alone aren’t enough to solve the problem, she says. She calls for a combination of strategies, including culling some of the animals, even if this remains a highly controversial approach for some animal rights activists.
Castelblanco says hippos live for a long time, up to 70 years, and over the decades can have massive impacts on the ecosystem and native species.
In an interview with Mongabay Latam, biologist Germán Jiménez, another co-author of the 2021 study, says the majority of hippos’ time is spent in the water, where they eat, sleep, urinate and defecate, which causes oxygen depletion. “Fish start dying and plants too,” he says. Hippos also displace other herbivorous species, like manatees, and their stomping affects the soil and plant species that grow in the ecosystems of the Magdalena Medio region.
‘Buy the hippo’
In a café in the central square of Doradal, a trafficker speaks about having a hippo at home, with no apparent concern about being overheard. I ask if he’s not scared of speaking so openly about doing something illegal.
“Everyone here knows who I am. I offered the beast to everyone and no one wants to buy it,” he says. “By the way, wouldn’t you like to take it?” I smile as if it were a joke. “You could keep it in a big house. If there’s a pond, that’s enough.”
“I live in Bogotá, I’d have to keep it in the bathtub,” I say.
“Give me 7 million pesos” — about $1,800 — “and if you want, I can take care of it until you find a place for it.”
“It really is impossible. Also, I’m a journalist.”
“What’s that got to do with anything? Find a partner and you split the payment. No one needs to know.”
The man appears desperate. He’s never had to keep a hippo for so long. Back in June 2021, he says, someone called him asking him to deliver a calf urgently. The trafficker knew of a female hippo that had recently given birth. So he went out to the lake with his wife — the same lake where Saldarriaga was attacked — and looked for the calf. When they spotted it, they used their usual technique of throwing stones at the mother so that she would abandon the still slow-moving calf and they could capture it.
This method isn’t always effective, the trafficker says. Sometimes, instead of getting spooked and running away, the female will get angry and charge at them. They know the dangers, he says, but it’s good money, especially in a region where even the minimum monthly wage of $234 is considered a luxury.
After the trafficker had successfully captured the calf, he contacted the buyer by phone, only to be told the deal was off.
“‘Brother, seriously, I’m sorry for you but I can’t buy it. I sold my ranch,’” the trafficker says the buyer told him.
He says he didn’t try to push the deal, because in a region of big ranches and eccentric owners, someone else would surely want a hippo. So he’s been left taking care of the animal, but it’s hard to pay for the costs of caring for such an exotic beast.
The trafficker says the calf drinks $100 of milk monthly. That’s a lot of money; an entire family of four or more can subsist on that monthly sum in this part of Colombia.
Locals say there are perhaps just three people in the area who are familiar with the dangerous job of capturing hippo calves. They say they’ve also heard of others who do the same in rivers 20 km (12 mi) away.
At the café, the trafficker gets closer and lowers his voice: “Miss, come to meet it and you’ll see how you fall in love. If you have kids, it would be the best present.”
Swimming with a dangerous creature
To reach the trafficker’s ranch requires crossing a maze of muddy trails. Next to the house is a pond of still green water, but the calf isn’t there.
A petite teenage with big black eyes emerges from a corridor.
“Are you looking for Campanita?” she asks. I look at her confused. “I named her Campanita.”
The girl seems excited to have a visitor she can finally talk to about her new secret pet. She takes my hand and leads me to her room.
“Campanita, love, come here,” she says, then repeats it. There’s a noise from under the bed, followed by the appearance of a dinosaur-like leg full of folds. Another leg emerges, then the head. When the hippo calf sees me, it goes back into hiding. The girl drags it out. The calf wiggles its ears in apparent distress.
Here, on this ranch in rural Colombia, a hippo calf lives with a human family, sharing a room with a teenager whom it already outweighs.
I stroke it. Its skin is cold, thick and gray. It’s like stroking a leather sofa. The calf trundles clumsily toward the girl. She’s become the animal’s maternal figure after her father’s illegal actions took it away from its real mother.
When it’s not under the bed, it follows the girl around the house, like a spoiled dog, sometimes rubbing its muzzle on her legs and seemingly demanding to be petted. The girl bends down and hugs it.
“Do you want it to go somewhere else?” I ask.
“It’s time. If it doesn’t leave, I don’t know what will happen.”
“What do you mean?”
“It can’t grow here and it’s impossible to take it back to its mother.”
For all of the girl’s life, hippos have simply been transient beings: orphans who come for a bit and then leave. Her house is a transit point for these animals rendered motherless because of the illegal trade. No one knows if any of the calves that once passed through here are still alive today, or if they ended up in a special dish after they left. As far as the girl knows, hippos are small and playful things. She’s had Andy, Joaco, Estrella, Magola (who she thought was a female and turned out to be a male), one that never got a name because it was sold very fast, and now Campanita.
By the time of my visit in late 2021, Campanita was the second hippo the girl had lived with that year. The previous hippo had been there three months and was sold in March for $1,540. The buyer was a rancher who paid for all the food expenses while the animal lived on the trafficker’s farm. He also covered all of the veterinary bills and paid an extra $50 monthly for taking care of the animal.
There’s no such rich patron on Campanita’s horizon. The calf eats and grows, and there’s still no prospect of finding a buyer.
The trafficker says he’s only had one offer since June: renting out the hippo to a nearby spa to be the main attraction. He says they offered him $130 a day. He thought about it, he says, but turned them down after considering the risks. A hippo in a spa next to a swimming pool with tourists from all over the world, each of them with their phones taking pictures, would spread the story to every corner of the world in minutes. Then the police, Cornare and the media would arrive. And worst of all, he says, he’d end up in prison with the owner of the spa, serving a sentence of four to nine years. He’d never make that mistake, he says.
“Let’s go to the water,” the girl says. Campanita follows her to a lake on the property, bigger and clearer than the pond next to the house. The girl runs and the hippo follows. The animal knows where they’re going, and its gait becomes lighter in the pasture. It stops by the edge of the water. The girl pushes with all the strength of her thin arms until the calf falls into the water. Campanita disappears underwater and then resurfaces. Human and animal follow each other and play.
“Let’s go, Campanita,” the girl says. The animal, instead of walking, lies on the ground looking at the lake, still happy to keep splashing around. Hippos have evolved to spend up to 14 hours a day in the water, until dusk when they head for dry land in search of fodder. In the wild, these urges are dictated by hunger and heat; here, by the humans who traffic them.
“Do your friends know you have a hippo?” I ask the girl.
“What a thing to say … Besides, I don’t have any friends.”
“I don’t go to school, my only friend is Campanita.”
The hippo calf and the girl came together because of the vicissitudes of an illegal business. The first one, if it’s lucky, will find a home with a private pond on some faraway farm. The second one will say goodbye without crying so that the buyers aren’t scared off — until her father brings home the next temporary pet.
In the meantime, the animal keeps eating and growing. Although the family still see it as a pet, as it gains weight and grows, the danger of an attack increases. It’s a ticking time bomb living inside the house of an underserved family in Doradal.
Castelblanco-Martínez, D., Moreno-Arias, R., Velasco, J., Moreno-Bernal, J., Restrepo, S., Noguera-Urbano, E., … Jiménez, G. (2021). A hippo in the room: Predicting the persistence and dispersion of an invasive mega-vertebrate in Colombia, South America. Biological Conservation, 253, 108923. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2020.108923
Banner image: For the trafficker’s daughter, the hippo calves are temporary pets that she takes care of and plays with every day. Image by Diana María Pachón.
This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and first published here on our Latam site on Nov. 25, 2021.