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Killing of hippo in Colombia sparks outcry

Protesters demand an order be rescinded that authorizes the killing of two other hippos believed to be related to the slain one, called Pepe, that escaped from a ranch once owned by Pablo Escobar.

July 15, 2009|Chris Kraul

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA — The government-ordered killing of a hippopotamus that escaped from the ranch once owned by the late drug kingpin Pablo Escobar has raised an outcry among Colombian animal rights groups.

The hippo, nicknamed Pepe, was killed last month near the town of Puerto Berrio, about 100 miles northwest of Bogota. An environmental agency in Antioquia state ordered the hippo killed as a health risk and menace to farmers and fishermen, and the national Environment Ministry approved the killing.

The killing came to light last weekend when photos were published showing soldiers who helped corner the animal posing around the carcass like big-game hunters. The hippo was killed by two professional hunters using high-powered rifles.

On Tuesday, protesters picketed the Environment Ministry here and demanded that the government rescind the Antioquia state order that authorizes the killing of a female hippo, called Matilda, and her baby, Hip, who are thought to be Pepe's mate and offspring.

"It is an outrage that the same government that allows the torture of bullfighting and cockfighting is now endorsing the murder of hippopotamuses," said picketer Marcela Ramirez, president of the Animal and Environmental Protection Network.

Pepe was a descendant of four hippos that Escobar bought in the 1980s to populate his private wild animal park at Hacienda Napoles, a 5,500-acre ranch and pleasure palace in west-central Colombia. The original four hippos have since multiplied to as many as 27, local officials say.

Antioquia official Luis Alfonso Escobar said the kill order was issued "as a last resort" because the three animals had become public nuisances and safety hazards, killing seven calves, destroying crops and knocking down several fences.

The official said the hippos could also be carrying unnamed diseases and present a threat to the ecosystem.

Anibal Vallejo, president of Colombia's Society for the Protection of Animals, rejected the rationale.

"It seems odd to us that 20 years after Escobar brought these animals to Hacienda Napoles, only now are they beginning to worry about environmental risks, none of which have been proven," Vallejo said.

Officials also cited the high cost of capturing and moving the animals, which can weigh up to 3 tons.

"We have to make decisions," Environment Vice Minister Claudia Mora told El Tiempo newspaper. "People think moving a hippopotamus from one place to another is like lassoing a cow. . . . Colombia doesn't have sufficient know-how to manage it."

After Hacienda Napoles was seized by the government shortly before Escobar's death in a 1993 shootout, all of his animals were given to local zoos -- all, that is, except the hippos, which formed a herd and maintained residence in one of a dozen artificial lakes that Escobar had dug at his ranch.

Despite the "global appeal" that the local municipality, Puerto Triunfo, issued in 2006 that someone, anyone, come and take the hippos off the town's hands, there have been no takers.

Puerto Triunfo wants to convert Escobar's lakes into an aquatic park, but the presence of the hippos, which are highly aggressive animals, has blocked the plan.

Pepe is believed to have been chased away from the ranch a few years ago by the herd's dominant male. He and Matilda had been seen periodically wading up the Magdalena, Colombia's principal river.

Some Colombians, including fishermen and residents near Hacienda Napoles, are terrified of the animals and want them gone.

Others view the animals as a symbol and potential tourist magnet.

Vallejo of the Society for the Protection of Animals said the hippos should be returned to Hacienda Napoles, "where they have been for many years and have done nothing to no one."

--

Kraul is a special correspondent. Special correspondent Jenny Carolina Gonzalez contributed to this report.

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