The so-called "cocaine hippos" of South America are in the news again. Unlike Cocaine Bear, these are not coke-snorting mammals. Several were imported from Africa to Colombia by Pablo Escobar in the '80s and now 70 are being sent to Mexico and India at a cost of $3.5 million.
“We’re looking to save the lives of hippos, but also to protect the lives of people in the Magdalena Medio region,” says Anibal Gaviria, governor of Antioquia Department, adding: "Once the Ministry of Environment issues 'hippo passports,' the transport process can happen and it is expected to take place by the end of the first semester of the year."
When Pablo Escobar was at his peak running the Medellín Cartel in Colombia (they primarily produced and exported coke around the world), he imported four African hippos. After Escobar was killed by police in 1993, the hippos were able to escape to the nearby Magdelena River. There are now upwards of 150 hippos patrolling the waters of Colombia.
In 2021, The Late Show host Stephen Colbert joked:
"Scientists warn Colombia's cocaine hippos must be stopped... Cocaine hippos are like regular hippos, but they corner you at parties and insist you guys should start a band. Problem is the hippos have no predator and now pose a threat to local wildlife."
According to an article in The Cut, "The 'Cocaine Hippos' Are Out of Control":
"The ecological impact of their party lifestyle has been, and could continue to be, devastating."
Of course, this is meant to be funny. But National Geographic paints another picture, quoting Danish biologist Jens-Christian Svenning who believes hippos can offer "ecosystem services" once provided by large herbivores like toxodons and tapirs. "Hippos could likely contribute a partial restoration of these effects, likely beneifitting native biodiversity overall," he wrote in 2017.
Escobar remains a controversial and fascinating figure in drug culture. Two seasons of Narcos were devoted to him and Benicio Del Toro portrayed the jefe in 2015's Escobar: Paradise Lost.
This article was originally posted on Jan. 22, 2021. It has been updated.