Discover the Incredible Story of Pablo Escobar’s ‘Cocaine Hippos’

Written by Andrew Wood
Updated: June 8, 2023
© hyotographics/
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Pablo Escobar held the dubious distinction of being the richest criminal in history. As the head of the Medellin drug cartel, he accumulated approximately $30 billion by the end of his life in 1993. Most of this fortune came from ruthlessly smuggling cocaine to the United States in the 1980s and 90s. Countless lives were ruined as he grew his empire through terrorism, political manipulation, and assassinations. Cocaine ravaged those who used it, primarly through addiction. Escobar’s reign of destruction also brought an unusual invasive species problem to Colombia: hippopotamuses. Today, they’re called “cocaine hippos,” not because they have a habit, but because they were purchased with drug money. But as we’ll see, even sober, these animals are as dangerous and unpredictable as their late owner.

Key Points

  • Pablo Escobar was a Colombian drug lord who made a fortune shipping cocaine to the United States.
  • He built a palatial estate complete with a private zoo, including hippopotamuses.
  • After his death in 1993, the hippos escaped and began multiplying in local lakes and rivers.
  • Today they number over 100 and will rapidly increase into the thousands if something is not done to control them.
  • Hippos are one of the deadliest animals in the world for human beings. They are large, fast, stealthy, aggressive, and unpredictable. They kill people by biting, drowning, or trampling them.
  • There is not a clear consensus in Colombia on how, or even whether, they should be controlled or eradicated.
  • The United States very nearly had the same problem. In 1910, Congress considered a proposal to release hippos into the Mississippi River. They were meant to eat an invasive water plant species and serve as a source of meat for human consumption.
  • Solving the problem of Colombia’s cocaine hippos is something the international community needs to participate in. As a global community, we need to contain this ecological fallout of the international drug trade.
Hands holding dollar money on flag of Colombia
Pablo Escobar became the richest criminal in history by setting up a drug cartel to import cocaine.


Escobar’s Violent Rise to Power

Pablo Escobar grew up in poverty in Medellin, Colombia. He dropped out of university for a life of petty crime, selling illegal cigarettes and counterfeit lottery tickets. He later moved on to car theft, and then worked for drug smugglers doing things like kidnapping people, and worse. In the mid-1970s he started the Medellin Cartel, which set up cocaine smuggling routes through Latin America to the United States. With the increased availability and affordability of the drug, demand exploded. By the 1980s, Escobar’s organization was flooding the U.S. with shipments totaling 70-80 tons of cocaine per month. With the financial rewards so high, rival drug dealers were a constant threat. Colombia was called the “murder capital of the world.” Cartels assassinated police, public officials, members of the media, and ordinary citizens who got in their way.

Light still shine even in the moment of despair , a girl facing down alone in abandoned building in Low key photo
In the 1980s and 90s, millions of people in the U.S. and around the world became addicted to cocaine.


A Robin Hood Figure

Despite all the violence he brought, Escobar became an admired symbol in Columbia. He was a local boy who made it out of the slums into a position of power and wealth. Remarkably, in the 1980s, he was elected as an alternate member of the Colombian parliament. He was put in charge of community projects such as housing construction and building sports facilities. Doing tangible things for the community, of course, helped his popularity grow. But those things were done with government money, rather than his own ill-gotten gains. Under pressure from the American and Colombian governments, Escobar was finally arrested. He later escaped and led authorities on an epic manhunt before being shot and killed by Colombian police in 1993. Over 25,000 people mourned him at his funeral.

Daytime in Medellin, Colombia
Medellin, Colombia is where Escobar grew up, founded a cartel, and became a folk hero to thousands.


What About the Hippos?!

In a nutshell, Escobar brought hippos to Colombia, and they escaped. Now the government is having trouble getting rid of them. But the story is fascinating, so let’s backtrack a little. Just why would a billionaire drug lord buy hippos in the first place? Well, Escobar bought a lot of lavish possessions.

In the 1980s, he bought most of Norman’s Cay, an island in the Bahamas. It included an airstrip, port facilities, a hotel, and private residences. He turned the whole island into a major transshipment point for his cocaine operation.

For his own base of operations in Colombia, he bought 7.7 square miles of land. Here, he built a Spanish colonial-style mansion called the Hacienda Nápoles. At the entrance to his property was a small plane: a replica of his original Piper PA-18 Super Cub. This airplane had taken his first cocaine shipment to the U.S. and started his empire. The property included an airstrip, planes, military vehicles, a Formula 1 racetrack and a go-cart racetrack, a private bullring, several swimming pools and man-made lakes, life-sized dinosaur statues, and (cue ominous music) a zoo.

This is where the hippos come in. Escobar had a fascination with exotic animals. He stocked his zoo with tropical birds, elephants, rhinos, giraffes, ostriches, horses, and of course, hippopotamuses.

pack of hippopotamus in Colombia
These are some of Escobar’s “cocaine hippos,” photographed roaming freely in a Colombian river.

©Guillermo Ossa/

How Did the Hippos Escape?

To be fair to Pablo, he had no intention of releasing his precious pets into the wild. They were all safely incarcerated on his property. But when he died, a huge legal battle erupted between the government and his heirs over control of the property, including the animals. The government won control but could not afford the upkeep of the animals. It decided to donate them to different zoos around South America. However, during the chaotic transition period, Escobar’s four hippopotamuses were considered too difficult to capture and move. Incredibly, they were abandoned on the untended estate rather than contained or humanely euthanized.

Explosive Multiplication

What’s the harm in letting a few hippos wander around? We’ll cover the dangers of hippos in a moment, but let’s be clear: the problem is no longer a few hippos. The original four that escaped in 1993 (including a female named Vanessa who responded to her name when called) had multiplied to 16 by 2007. By then, they were roaming not only the lakes on the property but feeding in the nearby Magdalena River.

In 2011, their number was estimated at 30, and by 2014 there were 40. And just five years later in 2019, the hippo population had grown to 90-120 individuals! They currently range over an area of 870 square miles. Experts predict that, within 10 years, the Colombian hippo population will reach 150-200. And by the middle of the century, thousands of them may be spread over a vast swath of the country. This will have an increasingly severe environmental impact on indigenous species. These include manatees, turtles, and fish that will lose habitat and food sources.

A large group of hippos lie in the water.Tanzania Serengeti
A large group of hippos lie in the water.Tanzania Serengeti

© Louizidis

An Insanely Dangerous Species

Imagine you’re swimming, and you get to choose which animal to be in the water with you: a shark or a hippo. Which would you choose? If you know what’s good for you, you’d better choose the shark. Each year only 10 people die of shark attacks, but 500 are killed by hippos! What makes hippos so deadly?

Hippopotamuses are massive, weighing in at 3,000-4,000 pounds. They spend most of their time supporting that weight in the water, swimming or feeding on aquatic vegetation. Often, they are just chilling with their bodies submerged and nothing but their nostrils showing. This makes them hard for fishermen, swimming children, or women fetching water or washing clothes to spot them. And hippos are very territorial. They frequently attack boats that inadvertently wander too close to them, overturning them and attacking the people who fall into the water with their enormous tusks.

Hippos are equally formidable on land. Despite their massive weight, they can run in short sprints up to 20 miles per hour. This is two to three times the speed an average person can run. And since they weigh as much as a car, getting trampled by one is like getting hit by a car. Most people killed by hippos die from being bitten, drowned, or trampled and crushed. Some fishermen in Colombia have had close calls with hippos and have called for them to be exterminated, but fortunately, there have not been reports of hippo-related deaths there . . . yet.

Strongest animal bite – hippopotamus Africa, Aggression, Animal, Animal Body Part, Animal Head
These two young hippos in Botswana already have sharp tusks that will only get larger and deadlier.

© zengin

No Consensus

In 2022, the Colombian government officially declared hippos an invasive species, but to date, they have no coordinated plan in place to manage them or reduce their numbers. One of the biggest reasons for this is that there isn’t a consensus in Colombia about getting rid of them. Some environmentalists think that, despite the disturbances hippos bring to modern species, they could have a beneficial role by bringing more nutrients to waterways, causing other aquatic plants and animals to flourish. Some also think hippos will fill an open environmental niche left by the extinction of some prehistoric species in the area. Other people want to see the hippos stay because they are a novelty that can attract tourist dollars to parts of the country that are normally off the beaten path.

No Clear Solutions

So, what could be done to exterminate the cocaine hippos, or at least keep their numbers under control? Here are a few possible solutions, some of which have been tried, but none effectively, yet:

Capture and Export

The Colombian government announced in 2023 that it hoped to agree with India and Mexico on a plan to transfer 70 of the creatures to their countries. This would make a large dent in the current population, but it needs to be completed quickly before they multiply even further. Once the numbers reach multiple hundreds or thousands, there will not be enough zoos in the world to take in so many hippos. They could be transported to Africa and released into the wild there, but this would be an expensive undertaking. Neither Colombia nor most African countries would have the resources to accomplish this without international support. And because of all the deaths hippos inflict on people in Africa, introducing still more of them would not be popular with local citizens.

Aggressive hippo male attacking the car. Huge hippo male intimidating the opponent. Wild animal in the nature habitat. African wildlife. This is Africa. Hippopotamus amphibius.
Hippos are in decline in their natural habitat, but African countries are not eager to accept more.



Some biologists have proposed physically castrating the males to prevent more breeding. Given the ferocity of the species, this is an extremely dangerous undertaking. Castration was done to one hippo, but the entire process was prohibitively expensive, at $50,000. In 2021, the government began a chemical sterilization campaign using a vaccine called GonaCon, which is a more cost-effective way of achieving similar results. It is not yet clear how effective this program is.


The Colombian hippos could be exterminated by poisoning them or shooting them. Hunting them by helicopter would cut down on the danger to hunting teams. But the optics of such a campaign would be a public relations nightmare. In fact, after just one hippo was shot and a photo got out to the public, there was a huge outcry that put a stop to further culling.

Killing them is also problematic because hippopotamuses are a vulnerable species worldwide, facing a high risk of extinction. The population in Africa is in decline, with perhaps only 115,000 hippos left in the wild. It would be a shame to lose such a prolific breeding population, simply because it happens to be on the wrong continent. But again, even if they are in decline in Africa, that does not mean that African countries would be eager to increase their numbers of such dangerous animals.

Hippos are built for the water.
We don’t want these iconic creatures to go extinct.

© Nordling

Their Problem, Not Ours?

If you don’t live in Colombia, you might think, “I’m glad it’s not my problem.” But if you live in the United States, it almost was your problem. The American Hippo Bill of 1910 was a proposal to release hippopotamuses into the Mississippi River. They would have helped control an invasive water plant that was clogging up the waterway and would have been used as a meat source, if the American people could be convinced to eat them. Fortunately, this disastrous proposal was rejected.

But in another way, the cocaine hippo problem in Colombia is also our problem. Drug money from the United States and other wealthy countries helped create the problem in the first place. The whole system wouldn’t work without both a supply and a demand for drugs that were inadequately controlled on both ends. Just as we have worked together with our Colombian friends to bring criminals like Pablo Escobar to justice, we also need to work together to repair the damage that has been done. Even if that damage is in the form of 100 feral, quickly breeding hippos.

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About the Author

I'm a freelance writer, world traveler, and lifelong animal lover. Currently, I'm an "Emotional Support Human" to 4 dogs, 1 cat, and 2 guinea pigs. My favorite wild animal is the quokka, the most selfie-friendly animal in the world!

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