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Hippos Are Main Attraction at Colombian Ranch of Slain Drug Baron


The main attraction at a new amusement park in central Colombia is a family of hippopotamuses, originally imported from Africa. Their home is not a zoo or Wildlife Park, but the former estate of one of the world's most notorious drug lords. VOA's Brian Wagner has this report from Medellin, Colombia.

The name Pablo Escobar no longer strikes fear in the residents of Medellin. The Colombian city has moved on since 1993 when Colombian police killed the man whose powerful Medellin drug cartel was responsible for murder and mayhem.

He left behind a vast compound called Hacienda Napoles, a few hours outside Medellin.

The drug lord commissioned a bull fighting ring, wild Animal Park and huge dinosaur models to entertain guests at his ranch.

Last year, local investors rebuilt many of the original features at Hacienda Napoles and opened a theme park.

Visitors can see what remains of Escobar's house. After his death, the estate was mired in legal claims. It fell into neglect. Vandals stripped the house of anything of value.

A few signs describe Escobar's history of violence and cocaine trafficking, which at its peak in the late 1980s is said to have generated $30 billion a year.

Some of the money went for lavish purchases, such as three African hippos. They now live on a lagoon on the property.

Sandra Ocampo is a park worker at the Hacienda Napoles. She says the animals have thrived far from their native habitat, even with little human help. "For 17 years no one here fed them, but they managed to survive on the natural vegetation. Now they are the main attraction here at the park, because this is one of few places where they have bred in a natural habitat," she said.

The original three hippos reproduced and there are now 22 of the huge, water-loving animals in Hacienda Napoles.

One of the most recent additions is Vanessa, a 14-month-old female which is receiving special treatment from park employees. Because Vanessa lives in a separate area, park employees say she is unknown to the rest of the herd.

A park employee says, "Each day Vanessa receives 12 liters of a special milk formula, as well as grass, carrots and salt. She cannot visit the big lagoon, otherwise the other hippos might kill her because she does not belong to their group," the employee said.

The relative freedom and space given to the hippos at Hacienda Napoles is rare among man-made animal parks. Miami Metrozoo, for example, houses only the pygmy hippo largely because its needs are much less than than those of its larger cousin.

Ron Magill is communications director for Miami Metrozoo. "When you keep them in captivity at least in a U.S. zoo, they have to be kept with a filtration system that needs a lot of maintenance and costs a lot of money,” Magill said. “Keeping them otherwise, you need a large piece of property, and if you are going to keep them in some natural swamp area, you need to have water running through it."

But even at Hacienda Napoles, space is running out for the hippos, as the hippos continue to reproduce. "Some of the hippos have been taken to zoos. A couple disappeared up the river when they were forced out by the lead male, and a few have died. Most of those who have died were killed by the lead male," Ocampo said.

That tendency toward violence is a characteristic the hippos share with their notorious former owner, Pablo Escobar.