Hippos roam drug lord's ranch
PUERTO TRIUNFO, Colombia (Reuters) - Ten hippopotamuses roam wild among the ruins of the late drug kingpin Pablo Escobar's abandoned country home, leaving huge footprints in the mud and scaring the wits out of the local cows.
The hippos are all that remain of Escobar's private zoo. In his heyday in the 1980s, Escobar imported elephants, rhinoceroses, lions, giraffes and other exotic beasts to his lavish ranch at Puerto Triunfo, 100 miles north of Bogota in central Colombia, as a testament to his fabulous wealth. Most of the animals were confiscated by the authorities and transferred to zoos after the cocaine lord was gunned down by police in 1993 in Medellin. But the hippos were left behind.
Despite the absence of a keeper, the Nile hippos -- some of which weigh two tonnes -- have flourished and reproduced on a muddy lake near the Magdalena River as if it were their natural terrain. And for six of the hippos born there, it is.
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"I've never heard of anything like this in my life," Steve Thompson, a hippo expert at Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo, said in a telephone interview. He has travelled to Botswana, Kenya and Tanzania to study the behaviour and life of hippos.
"I've only seen hippos living in the wild in Africa but I guess that if they have the right food and the right water habitat they can do pretty well in Colombia."
The short-legged, hairless mammals share the estate with a few families of war refugees. The refugees fled their homes after leftist rebels attacked their villages and took up residence at Escobar's ranch. They live in the once-luxurious guest homes which stand decaying under the tropical sun. Hens strut beneath laundry lines hung with ragged clothing.
A dozen refugee children play in the grounds all day, and the hippos watch them from the lake. Only the tops of the hippos' massive, reddish-brown heads and their constantly twitching ears show above the water. If the children come too close to the shore, the hippos snort and bluster and open their jaws menacingly, or make a rolling dive, to scare them away.
Nile hippos are plant-eaters, have a life expectancy of up to 40 years and can weigh up to 4.5 tonnes, Thompson said.
At nightfall, the hippo herd leaves the lake and wanders about the ranch, grazing on the grassy slopes and making sorties to the stables, where they savour the salt lick, a large block of salt for farm animals.
The refugees, unfamiliar with the ways of the giant African herbivores, have tried repeatedly to fence them in with barbed wire to thwart their raids on the salt lick and keep them from upsetting the cows. But to a hippo, a barbed-wire fence is an annoyance, not an obstacle.
"They tear down the fence every time I put it up and turn everything into a mess. But what can I do? They are huge," said Luis Perea, 64, pointing frantically at a flattened barbed-wire fence crossed by a trail of hippo tracks the size and shape of dinner plates.
The 7,400-acre (3,000 hectare) Hacienda Napoles, in Antioquia province, became the symbol of Escobar's billion-dollar empire and of his extravagant lifestyle -- a place of wonders, wild parties and debauchery.
Escobar built an airport, artificial lakes, swimming pools, a bull-ring, a garden with 100,000 fruit trees and towering cement dinosaurs. He assembled his menagerie to entertain guests, who included politicians, judges, soccer stars and beauty queens.
The zoo, which offered free bus tours to the public, had hundreds of exotic and rare animals from every corner of the world -- from black swans to Arabian camels to flamingos.
"The Godfather," as Escobar was nicknamed, purchased and imported the animals without bothering to get any permits and chartered ships to bring them home from Africa and Asia.
"I saw the hippopotamuses, the giraffes, the zebras, the lions enter the ranch on trucks," said Marcos, a 24-year-old taxi driver who sold lollipops at the gates of the ranch when he was a child. "This was paradise on earth."
All that is left of the zoo is a rusty, pocked sign that reads: "Welcome to Napoles Zoological Nature Park." For a while, there were some leftover zebras, but the last one grew old and senile and vanished into the jungle, witnesses said.
Napoles harks back to a time when flamboyant Colombian drug barons flaunted their riches and bombed and killed anyone who got in their way. Escobar, who rose from tombstone robber to one of the world's most famous and feared criminals, had amassed a fortune of $3 billion (1.85 billion pounds) by age 33.
Drug lords today maintain low profiles, largely because of new laws that allow them to be extradited to the United States. Still, Colombia exports more cocaine than ever.
A CHILDREN'S HAVEN
After it was seized by the state, Hacienda Napoles fell into disuse and oblivion. The mansions were looted by locals in search of the fortunes rumoured to be hidden inside walls and floors. The light aeroplane used by Escobar for his first shipment of cocaine to the United States was lowered from atop the ranch's main gates and dismantled by souvenir seekers.
Napoles now belongs to the children. They explore the skeletons of Escobar's vine-covered quarters, where lizards sunbathe on walls. They play hide-and-seek in the empty, moss-covered pools where the drug barons once bathed and cavorted in luxury.
The carport still houses a number of rusting, gangster-era American cars with flat tires -- including one that Escobar riddled with bullets to make it look more authentic -- and the children sit on the rotting upholstery and pretend to drive.
They scramble over the abandoned hovercraft, motorcycles with sidecars and a colonial-era horse carriage. The tyrannosaurus rex and brontosaurus are their private jungle gyms.
Many of them have hair-raising stories of being forced to flee their homes at dawn after seeing relatives killed by rebels or right-wing militias fighting in the country's four-decade war, but in Napoles they seem happy.
"We have a lot of fun here. We have all this place to play," said Leo, 13.
Sitting under a cool, swaying acacia as he swatted at the droning mosquitoes, Perea, who scratches out a living with his cows and banana trees, said he sometimes misses his hometown in western Choco province.
"I used to play the guitar at night and sing and drink with my friends, but I had to leave my guitar in the village. I miss my country but this is my home now," he said, looking at the hippos in the lake. "I guess I am like the hippos. They also came from a far place but now they are happy here."
By Ibon Villelabeitia
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