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Deporting Pablo Escobar's invasive "cocaine hippos" from Colombia carries a hefty price tag

Colombia's hippo population problems
Decades after Pablo Escobar brought hippos to Colombia, country now dealing with dozens of them 04:43

Colombia said Wednesday it was making progress on the transfer of 70 hippos to overseas sanctuaries, but mitigating the havoc caused by this unusual legacy of deceased drug lord Pablo Escobar carries a hefty price tag: $3.5 million.

The cocaine baron brought a small number of the African beasts to Colombia in the late 1980s. But after his death in 1993, the so-called "cocaine hippos" were left to roam freely in a hot, marshy area of Antioquia department, where environmental authorities have been helpless to curb their numbers which now stand at about 150 animals.

Authorities said they plan to capture and move nearly half of the hippopotamuses in the coming months, with 10 bound for the Ostok Sanctuary in northern Mexico and 60 destined for an as-yet unnamed facility in India.

"The whole operation should cost around $3.5 million," Ernesto Zazueta, owner of the Ostok Sanctuary, told reporters.

Pablo Escobar's Hippos-Ruling
In this file photo from Feb. 4, 2021, hippos float in the lake at Hacienda Napoles Park, once the private estate of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar who imported three female hippos and one male decades ago in Puerto Triunfo, Colombia.  Fernando Vergara / AP

He and governor Anibel Gaviria, of the Colombian region that is home to the hippos, say they plan to lure the animals with bait into pens where they will remain confined before being put in special crates for the transfer.

Colombia had tried a sterilization program to control the population, but it failed.

The environment ministry declared the hippos an invasive species last year, which opened the door to an eventual cull.

But the hippo transfer plan is seen as a life-saving measure.

Independent journalist Audrey Huse, who has lived in Colombia for eight years, told CBS News last week that in the 1980's, Escobar imported just four hippos — and now there are nearly 150 of them.

"Because they have no natural predators here, as they would in Africa, the population is booming an it's affecting the local ecosystem," Huse said. "Because they are such large animals, they consume considerable amounts of grassland and produce significant waste, which then poisons the rivers."

The result is that the hippos end up killing fish and threatening endemic species like manatees, otters and turtles, she said.

In 2021, after the Colombian government was sued over its plan to sterilize or kill the animals, a federal court ruled that the hippos can be recognized as people or "interested persons" with legal rights in the U.S. But the order doesn't carry any weight in Colombia where the hippos live, a legal expert said.

The area where they roam is a paradise for the animals who have no predators and ample food and water, CBS News correspondent Manuel Bojorquez reported in 2019. Locals call them the "village pets," but a local biologist told Bojorquez the "dangerous" and "territorial" species is anything but. 

Last year, Alvaro Molina, 57, said he supports the hippos  — even though he is one of the few Colombians to have been attacked by one. He was out fishing one day when he felt a movement beneath his canoe that spilled him into the water.

"The female attacked me once — the first pair that arrived — because she had recently given birth," he said.

Locals say the hippos sometimes come out of the water and walk through the streets of the town. When that happens, traffic stops and people keep out of their way.

Pablo Escobar's hippos keep multiplying and Colombia doesn't know how to stop it 05:41
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