The hippopotamus is not native to the Americas. But there are wild hippopotamuses in Colombia.
That's because the notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar, who died in 1993, brought them to his lavish estate in that country. They were part of his extensive personal zoo, which also included giraffes and elephants. Escobar owned four hippos--one male, three females. He kept them in a lake.
After the Colombian government confiscated Escobar's estate, they broke up his zoo and sent most of the animals elsewhere. But they left the hippos alone. They continued to live--and breed--in the lake. Some of them broke out and wandered into the Magdalena River.
No one knows precisely how many hippos now live in Colombia, but there are estimates of 50 to 60. They've bred so quickly because living conditions in Colombia are better than their African homelands. BBC News explains:
Here, conditions for hippos are idyllic. The river is slow moving and has plenty of shallows, perfect for larger animals which don't actually swim but push themselves off banks, gliding through the water. Moreover, the region never experiences drought, which tends to act as a natural brake on the size of herds in Africa.
How much the hippos like Colombia can be judged from how much sex they are having. In Africa they usually become sexually active between the ages of seven and nine for males, and nine and 11 for females, but Pablo Escobar's hippos are becoming sexually active as young as three. All the fertile females are reported to be giving birth to a calf every year.
Hippos may look cute. But remember that they are fiercely territorial, aggressive animals that can swallow a human whole. Unfortunately, most Colombians do not have experience with hippos. Carlos Valderrama, a man who may be the only veterinarian to ever castrate a hippo in the wild*, explained that Colombians may be insufficiently cautious:
Colombian people, he believes, are more vulnerable than Africans because they see hippos as cuddly, "floppy" animals. The respected El Colombiano newspaper recently reported that children in a school near Hacienda Napoles are sharing a pond with the animals, and having direct contact with hippo calves at home.
"My father brought a little one home once," an unnamed girl told the paper. "I called him Luna (Moon) because he was very sweet - we fed him with just milk." Another child, a boy, told the paper: "My father has captured three. It is nice because you have a little animal at home. We bottle-feed them because they only drink milk. They have a very slippery skin, you pour water and they produce a kind of slime, you touch them and it's like soap."
*How would you like to have that on your resume?