Monday, June 27

‘I was terrified’: the vet sterilizing Pablo Escobar’s cocaine hippos | Colombia

When Gina Paola Serna studied to become a biologist and veterinarian in Colombia, she never expected that she would one day be tasked with castrating an invasive herd of hippos that once belonged to Pablo Escobar.

When they were smuggled into the drug dealer’s private zoo in the 1980s, there were only four hippos. But in the 26 years since Escobar’s death, their numbers have steadily grown – the herd now includes around 80 animals, threatening to disrupt ecosystems in Colombia. So now, Serna spends his days tracking and sterilizing the huge riparian mammals.

“The first time I worked with a hippo I was terrified, these are much larger animals than what we are used to working in Colombia,” said Serna, before another day in the field. “These are massive and territorial animals, so everything is complicated when working with them.”

The so-called “cocaine hippos” were illegally brought to Colombia and kept in a zoo that Escobar built on his vast Hacienda Napoles farm, on the banks of the Magdalena River. He brought rhinos, giraffes, and zebras to his animal collection. Oral history suggests that his associates were captivated by his collection of spectacular wild beasts, which it included about 200 animals.

A pink statue of a hippopotamus greets tourists at Hacienda Napoles Park in Puerto Triunfo, Colombia.  Hacienda Napoles was once a private zoo with illegally imported animals that belonged to drug lord Pablo Escobar.
A pink statue of a hippopotamus greets tourists at Hacienda Napoles Park in Puerto Triunfo, Colombia. Hacienda Napoles was once a private zoo with illegally imported animals that belonged to drug lord Pablo Escobar. Photography: Fernando Vergara / AP

But after The boss He was shot and killed by the police on a rooftop in his hometown of Medellín, the Colombian authorities confiscated his property and the animals in it. Most were sent to zoos, although the logistics of moving the four hippos, each weighing more than a metric ton, proved insurmountable and they were left to roam the Andes.

So far, up to 24 hippos have been sterilized, using Gonacon, an immunocontraceptive vaccine, which it works temporarily but can cause permanent infertility. Originally, there were calls to remove the hippo population from Colombia, but in the end, sterilization was thought to be the most humane option.

“Obviously you cannot let these hippos continue to reproduce, which is what they will continue to do because they are in paradise,” said Enrique Zerda Ordóñez, professor of biology at the National University of Colombia in Bogotá, adding: “They ‘always they will have water, all the plants they might want to eat, and they will be able to get out of the river and eat grass with the cows. ”

Rural farmers have taken a liking to the wandering herd, charging tourists to catch a glimpse of hippos bathing on their land, though one villager was injured last year after getting too close. Animal rights activists and conservationists have also tried to protect hippos, vehemently protesting any initiative to euthanize the animals.

“This is just a pilot project, but something had to be done,” said Robin Poches, a biologist and businessman who helped the Colombian government secure a donation of 70 doses of Gonacon from the US Department of Agriculture. “Otherwise, it is only a matter of time before someone is seriously injured or killed.”

The decision to medically spay animals, rather than neuter them, will save money and time-consuming work.

Neutering a hippo is no small feat and costs around $ 7,000 for each animal. Hippos spend most of their time submerged in rivers, grazing on underwater flora, and only emerge at night, so surgery would have to be done after dark. The reproductive organs of a hippo are internal, so veterinarians must perform invasive procedures to castrate the animals.

“The surgery itself is not the hardest part, the tricky part is anesthetizing them,” said Serna, who castrated six hippos from the herd, rendering them unconscious with tranquilizer darts that pierce the skin 5 cm (2 inches) thick. “It requires a whole team of people and since we do not have those medicines for such huge creatures available in Colombia, it is very expensive.”

Hippos are one of the many enduring remnants of Escobar’s reign of terror, which spanned from the late 1970s until his death in 1993 and led to widespread murders and kidnappings. But for Serna, animals should not associate with the capo.

“Hippos are not Escobar’s legacy, they are simply animals that escaped and raised and built a home in an environment that is not their own,” Serna said. “So, for me, they have nothing to do with Escobar.”

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