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

Photo: Joaquín Sarmiento / AFP / Getty Images
When Gina Paola Serna was studying biology and veterinary medicine in Colombia, she never expected to one day castrate an invasive hippopotamus herd that once belonged to Pablo Escobar.
When they were smuggled into the drug lord's private zoo in the 1980s, there were only four hippos. But in the 26 years since Escobar's death, their number has grown steadily: The herd now comprises around 80 animals - and threatens to destroy ecosystems in Colombia. Now Serna spends her days tracking down and sterilizing the massive river mammals.
“The first time I worked with a hippopotamus, I was afraid - these are animals that are much larger than we are used to in Colombia,” said Serna another day ago in the field. "These are massive and territorial animals, so everything is complicated when it comes to working with them."
The so-called "cocaine hippos" were illegally brought into Colombia and kept in an Escobar zoo, which was built on his huge estate Hacienda Nápoles on the Magdalena River. He brought rhinos, giraffes and zebras to his menagerie. Oral tradition suggests that his staff was delighted with his collection of spectacular wild animals, which included around 200 animals.
A pink hippopotamus statue greets tourists at Hacienda Nápoles Park in Puerto Triunfo, Colombia. Hacienda Nápoles was once a private zoo with illegally imported animals belonging to drug trafficker Pablo Escobar.
But after El Patrón was shot dead by police on a roof in his hometown of Medellín, Colombian authorities confiscated his property and the animals on it. Most were shipped to zoos, although the logistics of transporting the four hippos - each weighing well over a ton - proved insurmountable, and they had to cross the Andes.
So far, up to 24 hippos have been sterilized with Gonacon, an immunocontraceptive vaccine that works temporarily but can cause permanent infertility. Originally there were calls to kill the Colombian hippopotamus population, but in the end, sterilization was seen as the more humane option.
"Of course you shouldn't let these hippos reproduce any further, because they are in paradise," says Enrique Zerda Ordóñez, biology professor at the National University of Colombia in Bogotá, and adds: "They" They always have water, all the plants that they need want to eat and they can jump out of the river and eat grass with the cows. "
Farmers in the countryside have grown fond of the migratory herd and are demanding tourists to peek at the hippos bathing on their land, despite a villager injured after getting too close last year. Animal rights activists and nature conservationists have also tried to protect the hippos and are vehemently protesting against all initiatives to kill the animals.
"This is only a pilot project, but something had to be done," said Robin Poches, a biologist and businessman who helped the Colombian government raise a donation of 70 cans of Gonacon from the US Department of Agriculture. "Otherwise it is only a matter of time before someone is seriously injured or killed."
Choosing to medically sterilize the animals instead of neutering them saves money and time-consuming labor.
Spaying a hippopotamus is no easy task and costs around $ 7,000 for each animal. Hippos spend most of their time underwater in rivers, grazing on the underwater flora and only appearing at night, so the operation had to be done after dark. A hippo's reproductive organs are internal, so veterinarians must perform invasive procedures to castrate the animals.
"The surgery itself isn't the most complicated part - the hard part is numbing it," said Serna, who castrated six hippos in the herd and knocked them out with stun arrows that pierced 5 cm thick skin. "It takes a whole team of people, and since we don't have these drugs for such huge creatures in Colombia, it's very expensive."
The hippos are one of many permanent holdovers from Escobar's reign of terror, which stretched from the late 1970s to his death in 1993, and resulted in widespread murders and kidnappings. But for Serna, the animals should not be associated with the kingpin.
“The hippos are not Escobar's legacy, they are simply animals that have escaped and made a home in an environment that is not their own,” said Serna. "So for me they have nothing to do with Escobar."

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