Monday, March 24, 2008

Hungry Hippos in Hacienda Napoles

A hippo critical situation

The ornery beasts were brought to Colombia to grace a drug lord's estate. He is long gone, but they have thrived -- and outgrown their welcome.

Puerto Triunfo, Colombia -- Hacienda Napoles was Pablo Escobar's pleasure palace, a 5,500-acre estate where the notorious drug lord reigned over million-dollar cocaine deals, parties with underage girls and visits by shadowy men of power.

Escobar lived large here in his lush fiefdom 100 miles east of Medellin, far from the teeming slums where he began his life of crime. He built a bullring, an airstrip, an ersatz Jurassic Park with half a dozen immense concrete dinosaurs. He stocked a private wild animal park with hundreds of animals, including elephants, camels, giraffes, ostriches and zebras. He installed four hippos in one of the estate's 12 man-made lakes.

Today, Hacienda Napoles is in ruins, taken over by jungle foliage and bats. The sprawling Spanish-style mansion has been gutted, scavenged by treasure hunters looking for stashes of gold and cash buried under the floors. Escobar is long gone, cut down in a hail of police gunfire.

But the hippos are still here.

More than 15 years after the government took control of Hacienda Napoles, the elephants, giraffes and zebras have long since disappeared, given away to Colombian zoos or left to die.

But the hippos were never claimed because they were too large and ornery to move. Now the original four have multiplied to 16 and, far from starving to death, as some expected, they have learned to forage like cows. In fact, local authorities say they represent a safety hazard -- and are standing in the way of plans to redevelop the late drug lord's estate.

At night, several of them emerge from their watery habitats and roam for miles looking for grass to munch on. Three months ago, a male hippo was shot to death by ranchers after he wandered three miles from the rest of the herd to a neighboring stream.

Weighing up to 3 tons, the hippos are not constrained by ordinary barbed-wire fences or gates.

"The problem is, you cannot manage them," said Francisco Sanchez, environmental officer of Puerto Triunfo municipality, which has control of the mansion and the former zoo area of the property. "They are too big and wild."

Sanchez said Escobar bought the original four from a dealer in New Orleans for $3,000 each.

Among themselves, hippopotamuses, whose name means "river horse," are gregarious animals, living in herds of as many as 40 in their natural habitat: the rivers, lakes and swamps of a dozen African countries. They live as long as 50 years and the males grow to a hefty size, sometimes 12 feet long and 5 feet tall. They vie with the rhinoceros for the title of second-largest land animal after the elephant.

They spend most of their lives submerged in water to stay cool and prevent sunburn. As hulking as they are, hippos can outrun humans on land, which helps explain the periodic deaths of unsuspecting safari travelers in Africa.

That speed, and their highly aggressive disposition whenever their turf is invaded, makes them a threat and is the main reason authorities are offering the animals, or at least most of them, free to anyone who will come and take them off their hands.

Although there have been expressions of interest from environmental and research groups from Central America to Africa, no one has made a commitment to take them, mainly because of the cost and difficulty of transporting the beasts.

Sanchez says some of the animals may have to be shot if no takers are found.

"They say the meat is very tasty and the teeth are worth a lot," he said with a smile, only half-joking.

The local government has begun to float the possibility it might have to reduce or exterminate the herd, an idea that probably will not sit well with the locals, many of whom regard the animals as part of their identity.

For Escobar, the zoo may have fulfilled some childhood dream -- and provided diversion from the grim, murderous business of running a drug empire. Born in the village of Rio Negro, near Medellin, Escobar began his criminal life as a petty street thug and car thief, graduating to cocaine smuggling as U.S. demand exploded in the 1970s. He muscled his way to the top by bribing, intimidating or killing government officials and competing narcos. At the peak of his power, Escobar was raking in billions of dollars a year, sinking a sizable chunk of it into building Napoles, his Xanadu.

The drug lord financed public housing and other Medellin public works and made a successful run for Congress. But after he ordered the 1984 killing of Colombian Justice Minister Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, who had threatened to extradite Escobar to face U.S. drug-trafficking charges, the state declared war. By the time he was hunted down and killed in Medellin in December 1993, the armed forces had controlled his beloved Napoles for two years.

The issue of what to do with the hippos has come to a head because after years of ownership disputes, the state finally prevailed against the drug lord's wife and two children, who claimed the estate by inheritance. The Colombian government plans a medium-security prison on one 800-acre chunk of Hacienda Napoles, and several hundred acres more will become an environmental reserve.

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