August 26, 2009 / 6:48 PM / 8 years ago

African experts study escaped hippos in Colombia

3 Min Read

BOGOTA (Reuters) - African zoologists are in Colombia to advise local authorities on what to do with dozens of hippos roaming around the abandoned zoo of late drug lord Pablo Escobar in the north of the country.

Colombia was shocked last month at news that one of the giant beasts, who had escaped from Escobar's Hacienda Napoles, had been hunted down and shot on order of the government.

Bogota-based beer company Bavaria, owned by SABMiller, invited wildlife experts Michael Knight and Peter Morkel from South Africa and Tanzania to find the best way to deal with the surviving animals.

The slain hippopotamus, called Pepe, was killed by a .375 caliber round through the heart.

It was a fate not unlike that of Escobar, who controlled most of the world's cocaine supply before being gunned down by police on a Medellin rooftop in 1993. He was so flush with cash in the 1980s that he flew in hundreds of exotic animals, including kangaroos, elephants, rhinos and nine hippos.

The experts will spend a week at Hacienda Napoles to come up with a plan for caring for the hippos that are still living and multiplying on the estate.

The zoologists will also help look for Pepe's mate, Matilda, who escaped along with him in 2006, and their calf.

The mother and child are living in the wild near the Magdalena River, according to local residents who catch sight of them from time to time.

The government called off the hunt for Matilda following the scandal caused by Pepe's killing.

Zoologist Knight sympathized with the position of Colombia's Environment Ministry, which had argued that hippos living wildly represented a threat to the local ecosystem.

"The primary responsibility of the ministry is the conservation of the biodiversity of Colombia," he said.

"You are dealing with an alien species," Knight said but he added: "We are looking for alternatives and solutions depending on what opportunities exist."

Escobar's zoo was seen by Colombians as a symbol of his power and extravagance. Most of the animals were taken to local public zoos after his death but the hippos were considered too big and dangerous to transport.

Reporting by Hugh Bronstein, Editing by Sandra Maler

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