Outrage in Colombia over killing of hippo


Pepe, a two-tonne hippo, was shot dead June 18 in a government-ordered killing near the town of Puerto Berrio, about 160 km northwest of Bogota. Photographs surfaced last week of the carcass surrounded by 15 gun-toting soldiers in fatigues, reminiscent of a trophy shot.
Pepe was part of a family of 23 and a descendent of hippos originally imported from Africa in 1981 by Escobar, then-leader of the Medellin cocaine cartel.
Known for his eccentricity, Escobar had imported scores of exotic animals including elephants, rhinos, hippos and kangaroos, which were kept in a zoo on his estate in Puerto Truinfo in the northwestern Colombian region of Antioquia.
A prominent display at the entrance to Hacienda Napoles, the 5,500-acre ranch, was the airplane in which Escobar smuggled his first load of cocaine into the US.
Escobar was killed by Colombian security forces in 1993, and the government took over the estate.
Pepe and his mate, Matilda, managed to escape the zoo in 2006 and, apparently thriving in the wild, even produced a calf, popularly dubbed Pepito.
In May, the Fundacion Vida Silvestre Neotropical, a non-profit organisation whose goal is sustainable management of Colombian wildlife, got a permit to kill the runaway hippos on the grounds that they endangered people and the ecosystem.
The foundation sought military backing to kill the animals and hold back farmers and peasants in the area who would want to protect Pepe and family. The environment ministry backed the decision.
Some people in the area said the hippos were dangerous, while other residents claimed that they had learned to live with the animals.
Pepe's killing has consumed the Colombian media and public, and led to protests by animal rights activists, who have been demonstrating outside the environment ministry, demanding the resignation of minister Carlos Costa.
In the face of the massive criticism, the government backtracked on its permission for the killings and was attempting to save Matilda and Pepito.
A theme park some 40 km north of Bogota has offered to take in Pepito, while parks in Costa Rica have offered homes for several other hippos that remain on Escobar's estate.
The environment ministry said it has contacted experts in South Africa and Tanzania, asking them to come to Colombia to provide advice on what to do with the surviving hippos.
When the controversy erupted, Deputy Enviroment Minister Claudia Mora justified Pepe's killing, arguing that hippos transmit diseases and that capturing them and sending them to a zoo was too expensive.
Journalist Juan Lozano, who was environment minister until a few months ago, disagreed: "It is clear that if they are not in their habitat they can present a risk for the population. But the formula is not to ... kill the hippos."

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