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There's a Possible Upside to Eating Pablo Escobar's Hippos

The drug kingpin left behind more than just a trail of cocaine. He also left a small herd of hippos, which could feed a small army of hungry Colombians.
Photo by Malcom McGregor via Flickr

When Pablo Escobar got shot in the ear in 1993, he left more than just the legacy of a bizarro-world Robin Hood who trafficked billions of dollars of cocaine and spread his wealth among the poor of Medellín.

He also left hippos.

At Hacienda Nápoles, Escobar's lavish estate in Puerto Triunfo, Colombia, the kingpin built himself a series of distractions that included a private bullring, a herd of concrete dinosaurs, and a menagerie of giraffes, kangaroos, exotic birds, and hippopotamuses.

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But Escobar's perhaps timely demise posed a problem for the government, which took over his assets following his death. The dinosaurs could stay, but someone had to pay for the live animals.

Most were transferred to local zoos, and many others starved to death. The hippos, however, became feral. What began as a small family of herbivores—one male and three females, all purchased from the San Diego Zoo in 1981—has become a herd of somewhere between 50 and 60 hippos, many of which still live in Hacienda Nápoles' man-made lakes.

But at least 12 others have broken free of the fences and gone as far as 155 miles away from the compound, where they demolish crops and sometimes stomp small cows.

It doesn't help that some Colombian children, who perhaps didn't grow up learning that hippos are known to be one of the most dangerous animals in their native Africa, think that they're harmless, or even cute. A recent report by El Colombiano noted that kids are swimming with the hippos and feeding the calves.

The skin, which can grow up to two inches thick and exudes a red slime that acts as a natural sunblock, probably doesn't make a very good chicharrón.

Rounding up the wild hippos and fencing them in is an option, but an expensive one at an estimated $500,000. The Humboldt Institute, an independent biodiversity organization in Colombia, simply suggests euthanasia—but that's likely to be met with protests, as it has in the past.

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One scientist, however, thinks that the hippos would make a lovely barbecue. When one of the Hacienda's hippos was accidentally electrocuted during an experiment with electric fencing, the carcass became dinner. "What did the local people do? They took him, they chopped him up, they barbecued him and they ate him!" biologist Patricio von Hildebrand told the BBC. Apparently, it tasted like pork.

On the surface, killing hippos for food not an insane idea. Hippos—like their evolutionary cousins, whales—have a lot of meat on their bones. At the turn of the 20th century, there was even a plan to import hippos to the Louisiana swampland to solve a massive meat shortage. According to a 1962 article in The New Scientist, hippos have very little fat and a high yield of edible protein—roughly 1,200 pounds of meat from an average-sized hippo.

But about that porkiness: The terroir of your average African hippo is, of course, influenced by its grass-heavy diet, while those Colombian transplants are stuck with local roughage. (Coca leaves?) The grass leads to a flavor that many describe as unlike any other typical protein. Unless it's blasted with the high, wet heat of a pressure cooker, the meat is lean and tough. It's sometimes dried, salted, and added to a vegetable stew. The skin, which can grow up to two inches thick and exudes a red slime that acts as a natural sunblock, probably doesn't make a very good chicharrón.

Hippos are still eaten in their native West Africa, even though poaching and war have decimated the population. Poachers, many of whom are current or ex-militiamen, use rocket launchers, machine guns, and even dynamite to kill the hippos. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the sale of the meat is illegal, commanding high prices in village markets and turning a tidy profit for the poachers.

But hippos can be as deadly dead as they are alive. In 2011, 500 people in Zambia were infected with anthrax after eating tainted hippo meat. In 2004, four people in western Uganda died after eating a hippo that "died of a strange disease."

The problem is verifying the safety of a wild hippo for consumption, no matter where it lives. Just as New York state officials didn't have a plan in place to test and cook the hundreds of wild geese it exterminated in 2010—a number of people wanted the meat donated to a food bank to feed the homeless—the cost associated with green lighting wild meat might outweigh the benefits of feeding hungry locals.

Besides, Pablo probably wouldn't want you to eat his hippos anyway.