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

11 months ago 142

When Gina Paola Serna studied to go a biologist and veterinarian successful Colombia, she ne'er expected to 1 time beryllium tasked with neutering an invasive herd of hippos that erstwhile belonged to Pablo Escobar.

When they were smuggled into the cause lord’s backstage zoo successful the 1980s, determination were conscionable 4 hippos. But successful the 26 years since Escobar’s death, their numbers person steadily grown : the herd present includes astir 80 animals – threatening to disrupt ecosystems successful Colombia. So now, Serna spends her days tracking and sterilizing the hulking riverine mammals.

“The archetypal clip I worked with a hippo I was terrified – these are animals mode bigger than we are utilized to moving with successful Colombia,” Serna said, earlier different time successful the field. “These are monolithic and territorial animals, truthful everything is analyzable erstwhile it comes to moving with them.”

The truthful called “cocaine hippos” were illegally brought to Colombia and kept successful a zoo Escobar built connected his immense Hacienda Nápoles estate, on the River Magdalena. He brought rhinos, giraffes and zebras to his menagerie. Oral past suggests his associates were wowed by his postulation of spectacular beasts of the wild, which included astir 200 animals.

A pinkish  statue of a hippo greets tourists astatine  Hacienda Napoles Park successful  Puerto Triunfo, Colombia. Hacienda Napoles was erstwhile  a backstage  zoo with illegally imported animals that belonged to cause   trafficker Pablo Escobar.
A pinkish statue of a hippo greets tourists astatine Hacienda Nápoles Park successful Puerto Triunfo, Colombia. Hacienda Nápoles was erstwhile a backstage zoo with illegally imported animals that belonged to cause trafficker Pablo Escobar. Photograph: Fernando Vergara/AP

But aft El Patrón was changeable dormant by constabulary connected a rooftop successful his hometown of Medellín, Colombian authorities seized his property and the animals connected it. Most were shipped disconnected to zoos, though the logistics of moving the 4 hippos – each weighing good implicit a metric ton – proved insurmountable, and they were near to rotation the Andes.

As galore arsenic 24 hippos person been sterilized truthful far, utilizing Gonacon, an immunocontraceptive vaccine, which works temporarily but tin origin imperishable infertility. Originally, determination were calls to cull Colombia’s hippo population, but successful the end, sterilization was thought to beryllium the much humane option.

“Obviously you can’t fto these hippos support reproducing, which is what they’ll support doing due to the fact that they are successful paradise,” said Enrique Zerda Ordóñez, a prof of biology astatine the National University of Colombia successful Bogotá, adding: “They’ll ever person water, each the plants they could ever privation to eat, and they tin popular retired of the stream and devour writer with the cows.”

Rural farmers person grown fond of the wandering herd, charging tourists for a glimpse astatine the hippos that bathe connected their lands, though 1 villager was injured past twelvemonth aft getting excessively close. Animal rights activists and conservationists person besides sought to support the hippos, vehemently protesting immoderate initiatives to cull the animals.

“This is lone a aviator project, but thing had to beryllium done,” said Robin Poches, a biologist and businessman who helped the Colombian authorities unafraid a donation of 70 doses of Gonacon from the United States Department of Agriculture. “Otherwise it’s lone a substance of clip earlier idiosyncratic gets earnestly injured oregon killed.”

The determination to medically sterilize the animals, alternatively than castrate them, volition prevention wealth and time-consuming work.

Castrating a hippo is nary tiny feat, and costs astir $7,000 for each animal. Hippos walk astir of their clip submerged successful rivers, grazing connected underwater flora, and lone look astatine night, truthful the country would person to beryllium performed aft dark. A hippo’s reproductive organs are internal, truthful veterinarians person to transportation retired invasive procedures successful bid to neuter the animals.

“The country itself isn’t the astir analyzable portion – the tricky happening is anaesthetising them,” said Serna, who has castrated six hippos from the herd, knocking them retired with tranquilizer darts that pierce 5cm (2in)-thick skin. “It requires a full squad of radical and arsenic we don’t person those drugs for specified tremendous creatures disposable successful Colombia, it is precise expensive.”

The hippos are 1 of galore enduring holdovers of Escobar’s reign of terror, which spanned from the precocious 70s until his decease successful 1993 and brought wide murders and kidnappings. But for Serna, the animals should not beryllium associated with the kingpin.

“The hippos are not Escobar’s legacy, they are simply animals that escaped and bred and made a location successful an situation that is not their own,” Serna said. “So to me, they don’t person thing to bash with Escobar.”