Pablo Escobar’s ‘cocaine hippos’ cause havoc amid renewed calls to cull them

Notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar may be dead – but he’s left a bizarre legacy of “cocaine hippos” that continue to cause havoc in his former homeland 30 years on.

The Colombian crime boss built up a £24billion fortune in the 1980s and 1990s as his greatly feared Medellín Cartel monopolised the cocaine trade to the US.

He used some of his illicit gains to build an illegal private zoo full of exotic critters, including the potentially deadly African beasts.

But since he was shot dead aged 44 in 1993, the huge hippos have been left to roam the tropical wetlands around his former luxury estate… and have thrived.

Some of the five-tonne animals have attacked people living locally and their multiplying numbers are threatening the region’s environment.

Last week, scientists renewed their calls to cull the animals before their numbers soar out of control.

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Escobar, the subject of hit Netflix series Narcos, is one of a host of crime barons to have furnished themselves with dangerous animals and unusual pets over the years.

Dubbed the King of Cocaine, his drug-trafficking career saw him become the seventh richest man in the world, while ruthlessly carrying out kidnappings, murders and bombings.

But Escobar also had a soft spot for animals, illegally importing a host of creatures into Colombia, which he kept at his sprawling 5,500-acre Hacienda Napoles ranch.

The property boasted villas, six swimming pools, a hovercraft, private airport, race track, bullring and entrance gate topped with the plane he’d used to make his first drugs shipment.

Yet Escobar’s ultimate pride and joy was his estate’s personal wildlife park stuffed with kangaroos, giraffes, elephants, antelope, ostriches, rhino, buffalo, camels and lions.

He had 700 workers to look after them and one had trained a flock of white birds to roost in the trees next to his mansion.

When Escobar was killed on a rooftop fleeing police, many of the animals were re-homed in Colombian zoos. However, some were kept on the estate, which has been turned into a public theme park.

But some of Escobar’s hippos escaped into the surrounding countryside.

He originally brought four over from their native Africa in the 1980s, but since his demise the animals, with no natural predators in the South American countryside, have been vigorously breeding in the lush habitat of lakes and waterways around the Magdalena river basin.

With some spotted hundreds of miles away from their original home, they now number up to 120 and boffins say that number could soar to 1,500 by 2035 without a controversial cull.

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The hippos, which kill 500 people in Africa each year, left a farmer seriously injured last year. And in 2009, one nicknamed Pepe was killed by the authorities after attacking humans and killing cattle. There are also worries that they could edge out native species.

Another infamous drug lord who created his own menagerie was Mexican Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, who was given a life sentence in the US in 2019 for his leadership of the Sinaloa Cartel.

When he wasn’t running his multi-billion trafficking racket and brutally murdering his rivals, he liked to travel around his zoo on a little train, seeing lions and panthers. It’s said El Chapo also owned a rare white tiger.

In fact, the 63-year-old, famed for a string of daring escapes from jail, was once nearly caught by the authorities through his weakness for furry animals.

After one breakout, he bizarrely applied for an official permit to reunite his daughter with her pet monkey called Boots. Tracked by the authorities, he only narrowly managed to escape his hideout before they arrived.

When another Sinaloa chief, Jesus “The King” Zambada, now 45, was finally caught, a whopping 200 animals were confiscated from his ranch, including monkeys, lions, peacocks and ostriches.

Amado Carrillo Fuentes, leader of the Juárez Cartel, also owned a tiger, but for some criminal masterminds the fearsome fauna are not kept purely for pleasure.

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Heriberto Lazcano, leader of Mexico’s brutal Los Zetas Cartel, was nicknamed “The Executioner”, partly based on reports that he had his enemies fed to his pet big cats in their pits. He died in a shoot-out in 2012.

Other crime bosses have used exotic animals, such as snakes and tropical fish, to smuggle drugs, filling them with condoms full of cocaine.

In one operation alone, more than 5,000 animals were seized from gangs in Mexico, leaving local zoos overwhelmed.

One zoo boss, Manlio Nucamendi, explained that for the criminals the animals were “a symbol of status and power”.

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And the trend for taking the law of the jungle to extremes extends further afield. A Romanian gangster was recently found keeping bears on his estate, while elements of the Italian Mafia are known to own dangerous crocodiles to encourage people to pay up… or be fed to them.

In the 1983 movie Scarface, Al Pacino’s gangster character Tony Montana owns a pet tiger.

The storyline echoed real-life New York mobster “Crazy Joe” Gallo who is said to have kept a lion named Cleo in a basement, which he used to threaten debtors in the 1950s.

Gallo family associate Frank DiMatteo recalled chillingly: “The lion would rattle the chain and roar a little bit… and that was enough.”

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