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How a drugs lord's 'cocaine hippos' got out of control in Colombia

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

The late Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar had a taste for the exotic. He famously stocked his private zoo with giraffes, zebras and hippopotamuses, and some of those African hippos escaped into the wilds of Colombia. Now they're breeding, crowding out native species and, on occasion, attacking people, so Colombian officials are considering a plan to airlift the hippos out of the country. Reporter John Otis has more.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: In the steamy wetlands of northwest Colombia, we spot a group of seven hippos in a lagoon. In Africa, hippos charge out of the water to kill hundreds of people every year, so we keep our distance.

So the hippos are definitely keeping track of where we are. Any time we walk towards one end of the lake or the other, they sort of swim towards us to make sure we don't get too close.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD CHIRPING)

OTIS: A few people have gotten too close. On the nearby Magdalena River, Alvaro Molina recalls colliding with a hippo while out fishing.

ALVARO MOLINA: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: On impact, he was thrown into the river. His canoe filled with water, and his motor sank. But Molina managed to swim to shore.

MOLINA: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: "It was like a giant pig," he says. Colombia's hippo population now tops 140. That's a huge expansion from the original four hippos illegally brought into Colombia by Pablo Escobar in 1980.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER RIPPLING)

OTIS: After the drug lord was killed, some of the animals escaped into the Magdalena, where they've colonized a 120-mile stretch of the river. They weigh up to 9,000 pounds, eat tons of swamp grass and displace manatees, otters and capybaras. Last year, Carlos Correa, who was then Colombia's environment minister, blacklisted hippos as an invasive species.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

CARLOS CORREA: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: "They're highly dangerous and territorial," he told a news conference. "We are calling on people to be very careful. These are not pets. They can do a lot of damage." But efforts to reduce their numbers have floundered. Hunting is seen by many experts as the most practical solution, but after a sharpshooter killed one of the hippos, upsetting animal rights activists, a Colombian judge banned the practice.

CRISTINA BUITRAGO: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: Government veterinarians like Cristina Buitrago have castrated about a dozen hippos, but the animals must first be trapped, then put down with sedative-filled darts. The surgery requires six medics, takes five hours and costs $17,000.

BUITRAGO: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: "That's why," Buitrago says, "I don't think sterilization is the solution." Ernesto Zazueta, who runs an animal sanctuary in Mexico, thinks he does have the solution.

(SOUNDBITE OF HELICOPTER BLADES SPINNING)

OTIS: During a recent trip to Colombia, Zazueta flew over the Magdalena River in a helicopter for an aerial view of the hippos. Back on the ground, he explained his plan.

ERNESTO ZAZUETA: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: Zazueta says he wants to ship 60 of the hippos to an animal sanctuary in India and 10 more to his facility in Mexico. This would require catching the hippos, building special cages, then loading them aboard aircraft.

ZAZUETA: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: "Obviously, the plan is a little crazy," he says. "And it's expensive. Each flight will cost $1 million." Another problem is that it would only remove about half of the hippos. Still, Colombian officials have signed on to the plan as long as private donors pick up the tab. Indeed, the country has to do something. The hippos now feel so at home in Colombia that they wander through riverside neighborhoods and across highways, causing accidents.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Non-English language spoken, inaudible).

OTIS: Some congregate near this school, located next to Pablo Escobar's old estate.

YORLIN CUESTA: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: When her students left class a few weeks ago, says teacher Yorlin Cuesta, "the hippos were out there on the road. It's scary. People are very afraid of them."

JULIAN CADAVID: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: Two Colombians have been mauled by hippos, including a farm worker who was hospitalized for a month with a broken leg, collarbone and ribs. Julian Cadavid, who owns the farm, describes what happened.

CADAVID: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: "The hippo threw him in the air and opened his mouth," Cadavid says. "He played with him like a ball." There have been no fatal hippo attacks here, but Colombia's luck could run out. Scientists predict that unless radical steps are taken to cull the herd, by 2040 the country's hippo population could top 1,500. For NPR News, I'm John Otis on the Magdalena River, Colombia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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