Pablo Escobar’s hippos find a new home in the land of ‘El Chapo’

The Ostok Sanctuary, a shelter in the Mexican state of Sinaloa for animals rescued from species trafficking, hopes to welcome 10 descendants of the infamous drug lord’s exotic pets. The goal of the relocation is to prevent them from being slaughtered in Colombia, where they reproduce uncontrollably and cause accidents

A rescued tiger is released into its new habitat for the first time, at the Ostok Sanctuary, near Culiacán, Mexico, on May 23, 2023.
A rescued tiger is released into its new habitat for the first time, at the Ostok Sanctuary, near Culiacán, Mexico, on May 23, 2023.Iñaki Malvido
Micaela Varela

A group of tigers and lions who are recovering from malnutrition and injuries are temporarily agitated by the sounds of machinery. A few feet away from where they are trying to rest, bulldozers are shifting earth in the Ostok Sanctuary, in the city of Culiacán, the capital of the northwestern Mexican state of Sinaloa. The engines roar as workers build a pond, in which 10 descendants of Pablo Escobar’s famous pet hippos will be living.

From the Colombian region of Antioquia, the animals will travel by plane to Culiacán, in an operation that will cost $450,000. This is all being financed by the conservationist Ernesto Zazueta, who owns the animal shelter. Once the hippos land in Sinaloa, they will travel by road until they take the detour that leads to Jesús María, the bastion where the children of El Chapo Guzmán were hiding until recently. A few miles from the entrance to the refuge, black spots on the asphalt can still be seen. These marks were left behind from the cars that were torched by El Chapo’s henchmen in January of this year, as vengeance for the arrest of Ovidio Guzmán, one of the drug lord’s sons. Pablo Escobar’s hippos will soon arrive in this land, the stronghold of the Sinaloa Cartel.

When Colombia’s most infamous drug trafficker brought four specimens of Nile hippos from Africa to his private zoo at the Hacienda Nápoles in Antioquia, he couldn’t imagine the consequences. Following his death in 1993, the property fell into disrepair. The animals crossed the boundaries of the land, spreading through the Magdalena River and reproducing without control in a habitat that had no natural predators. From the four hippos he kept as pets in the 1980s, at least 169 descendants have now been identified. They cause traffic accidents, damage crops and occasionally harm the local fauna. The communities of the Colombian region have long been asking for a solution. But how can you control a population of highly-territorial animals that can weigh up to three tons, can eat 40 kilos of vegetation a day and are a major tourist attraction?

An Asian elephant named Big Boy eats alongside other animals in his habitat at the Ostok Sanctuary.
An Asian elephant named Big Boy eats alongside other animals in his habitat at the Ostok Sanctuary.Iñaki Malvido

The latest incident, in which a hippo was run over on a highway in Antioquia, led Governor Aníbal Gaviria Correa to demand a quick response from the Colombian minister of the environment regarding the fate of the hippos. Minister Susana Muhamad replied that the authorities are working to comply with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). The governor explained that the temporary measure of sterilizing the hippos wasn’t fast enough to control the population, yet the procedures to transfer them to another location were being delayed far longer than expected. Minister Muhamad noted that the transfer processes were being carefully studied, so as not to end up “exporting the hippos without verifying all the requirements and causing a problem elsewhere.”

Ernesto Zazueta, a Sinaloan businessman with a long history as a facilitator of services for zoos in Mexico, offered to host 10 specimens in his animal sanctuary. In addition, he has found a shelter in India that will care for another 60 of the hippos. “We’re going to bring the youngest we find, to reduce the birth rate in Colombia, which is very high,” the conservationist explains. He assures EL PAÍS that the hippos are already being coaxed with bait, so that they will fall into harmless traps that will make it possible to move them. The ultimate goal is to try to return the Nile hippos to their original habitat in Africa, as Zazueta has already done with other species that he has rescued from circuses, private collections, and other abusive spaces. Of course, the hippos will first have to spend a long time in Ostok.

The transfer of animals is one of the containment strategies recommended by researchers from the National University of Colombia and the Alexander Von Humboldt Institute — a proposal still being studied by the Colombian government. Another recommendation is to confine them in spaces with less freedom of movement to reduce mating. The most drastic and controversial measure they suggest is “control hunting.” It was already tried in 2009, when the government hired two German hunters who, accompanied by soldiers, shot Pepe, the first hippopotamus in the herd. The photograph of the group, which treated the corpse of the animal as a trophy, generated widespread repudiation.

One of the sanctuary’s watchmen observes the construction of the pond where the 10 hippos will be be living.
One of the sanctuary’s watchmen observes the construction of the pond where the 10 hippos will be be living.Iñaki Malvido

The death of the animals is what Zazueta is trying to avoid. “We want to rescue them because being an invasive species, they can be annihilated... [The Antioquian locals] may even receive permits to hunt them,” the businessman warns. He isn’t worried that bringing a dozen specimens will lead to the same problem of overpopulation in Mexico. “[In Colombia], they let them loose, lying around. That’s why they reproduce uncontrollably. And these animals are classified as being at-risk, so it also doesn’t make any sense to castrate them,” he stresses. The hippos that arrive in Culiacán will live in an enclosed area with a pool of water and caretakers. But they will not be sterilized or visited, as the Ostok Sanctuary is closed to the public to ensure stress-free and effective rehabilitation for the animals.

The herd will join Freddy, the only hippo living in the sanctuary at the moment. Zazueta proudly looks at the young animal, who is frolicking in a provisional pond. The new space that is being built will be incorporated into the more than 100 hectares of land that are sheltered by a landscape of dry trees between hills. With the rains, the dry land will eventually be transformed into a green space with natural shade to provide shelter for its inhabitants. Meanwhile, Zazueta and his team have built structures that provide shade.

Zazueta has only been bringing animals here for two years, but that’s been enough time to gather 450 specimens, ranging from big cats — such as panthers and jaguars — to small spider monkeys. Most are rescued from circuses, species traffickers, or private collections. They usually arrive wounded and traumatized. Others, such as Freddy, come from zoos that can’t take care of them anymore. “[Freddy] and his father could have had a very ugly fight over territory… It’s better we brought him here,” the rescuer notes.

Before he established Ostok, Zazueta moved animals from one zoo to another, while advising companies and institutions on appropriate wildlife management. With the 2015 change to the law in Mexico that prohibited circuses with animals, dozens of them were abandoned by their owners. At first, Zazueta was able to relocate some. But in the case of Big Boy, an elephant, he found no other solution than to open his own sanctuary for his rehabilitation. Big Boy had become accustomed to being immobile, with one leg constantly tied to a stick in the terrible circus conditions. Now, he’s much improved, constantly demanding cookies from Zazueta. After Big Boy, more species arrived, such as the birds that were rescued during a 2020 government raid that saw officials free 16,00 animals from wild animal traffickers in the Iztapalapa borough of Mexico City.

The most recent achievement was bringing 35 big cats rescued from the Black Jaguar-White Tiger Refuge, a space that went viral on social media and was visited by celebrities such as Lewis Hamilton and Justin Bieber. Last year, Mexico’s Prosecutor’s Office for Environmental Protection (Profepa) closed the place due to reports of malnutrition and mistreatment of the cats. The animals who arrived at Ostok were malnourished, and several had been mutilated.

However, after 10 months of rehabilitation, they have gained weight and some have even had babies. They were recently joined by a specimen that was rescued in Michoacán: an adult tiger who, while in the possession of criminals, was wounded by a bullet in a confrontation between armed groups.

Ernesto Zazueta, the director of Ostok, at the sanctuary’s facilities near the city of Culiacán, in the Mexican state of Sinaloa.
Ernesto Zazueta, the director of Ostok, at the sanctuary’s facilities near the city of Culiacán, in the Mexican state of Sinaloa.Iñaki Malvido

Zazueta explains that he has business partners who help him finance the expenses of the animals via donations. When he took in all the tigers, Farmacias Similares — a national chain of pharmacies — helped him build an enclosure on the property. For daily expenses, such as the many pounds of meat required by the big cats, he ensures that local companies — such as Su Carne or Bachoco — donate entire trucks worth of food. And, every few days, one of his employees leaves with a truck to tour the fields of Sinaloa in search of fruits and vegetables that the farmers may want to donate. With these donations, he covers half of the expenses, while the other half comes from his own pocket. “I have several companies, such as a legal advisory firm. I’m also the president of the United Association for Sustainable Management of Biodiversity and the Association of Zoos, Hatcheries and Aquariums of Mexico,” he adds.

His partners in India will cover the two planes that will transfer the other 60 hippos, an operation that amounts to $3.5 million. The commercial flight to Sinaloa, which costs nearly half-a-million, will be financed by Zazueta, although there’s still no specific date for the long-awaited arrival. Zazueta blames the Colombian bureaucracy.

“I’m desperate, because I want it to be done now, and I’m under pressure from India,” the rescuer laments. Regarding Minister Susana Muhamad’s statements, the businessman reproaches her for wanting to interfere in the process in Mexico. “She’s not in charge here, and she doesn’t have to get involved. That’s the problem. [The Colombian authorities] are unaware of everything, and they have the gall to complain,” he sighs. Meanwhile, it will be Freddy who inaugurates the great pond, while waiting for his future Colombian neighbors.

Diego García, director of the Culiacán Zoo and a supporter of the Ostok Sanctuary, closes the gate as he leaves the sanctuary’s grounds.
Diego García, director of the Culiacán Zoo and a supporter of the Ostok Sanctuary, closes the gate as he leaves the sanctuary’s grounds.Iñaki Malvido

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