DORADAL, Colombia —- James Torres spends most of his days tending cocoa trees and banana plants, helping him earn a modest living in Colombia’s sweltering Magdalena Medio region.
But occasionally, he tends to a special task; a job that puts him on the front lines of this country’s most bizarre environmental problem.
“I had this one for three months,” Torres said, pointing to a photo of his family posed with a baby Hippo under a thatched roof hut.
“This one was called Juaco, I had him since he was 12 days old,” the farmer said as he handed us a picture of himself carrying a hippo calf that weighed about 80 pounds.
A picture of James Torres handling Juaco, a baby hippo
Although he is a subsistence farmer with zero training in wild animal care, Torres raises newborn hippos with the hopes that they will be adopted by zoos in Colombia or around the world.
His yeoman's work remains unknown to most of the world, but it is part of a battle to control a destructive and potentially dangerous herd of hippos introduced into the country by notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar.
“It’s just like raising a dog,” Torres said as he showed us a giant bottle that he uses to administer milk to baby hippos. “They even follow you when you call them by their name.”
Pablo Escobar smuggled three female hippos and one male to Colombia in the 1980s. They were part of a private zoo the drug dealer kept on Hacienda Napoles, his luxurious estate near the town of Doradal.
But the hippos have reproduced exponentially since the drug dealer’s death in 1993. Now, some 50 hippos roam the plantations surrounding Escobar’s old farm.
“They destroy cocoa trees, they damage banana farms,” Torres said.
Most of the Hippos live on a theme park, also called Hacienda Napoles, that has been built on the site of the drug lord's old estate, and are a tourist attraction of sorts, along with other residual evidence of Escobar's opulent rein.
But Escobar’s hippos regularly foray into neighboring farms as they search for grazing areas, and have been sighted in lagoons that are as far as 100 kilometers away from the drug lords estate.
Wildlife experts like Juan Pablo Villegas are calling on the government to do something to reduce Colombia’s herd of hippos, the largest outside of Africa.
“It’s an unsustainable population,” said Villegas, who runs a university veterinary hospital in the nearby city of Medellin.
Villegas estimates that the herd could grow to 80 within 10 years.
“These are the most dangerous mammals in Africa,” he added, citing reports that Hippos kill more humans in that continent than rhinos, elephants and lions.
To control the herd, park officials and environmental experts have embarked on several initiatives, often without governmental aid.
One such initiative is to separate newborn hippos from the herd so that they can be more easily taken to zoos.
Sitting on a hammock under a thatched roof hut, that serves as his home’s “living room”, James Torres told us that park officials occasionally ask him to capture baby hippos, or calves, and keep them in his farm, which lies just beyond the theme park’s borders.
Park officials provide Torres with a special formula of milk to feed the calves.
“It’s not like I can just take one when I feel like it,” Torres said of the baby hippos. “But when they need to take a hippo somewhere and require of my services, I help them out.”
Torres and his family pose with Juaco, a baby hippo
So far Torres has raised five calves, including one that was adopted by another park near Bogota.
Some of the calves he’s raised have been abandoned by their mother, —-a natural occurrence in nature— and Torres said he picked them up just to save their lives. These calves were reintroduced into the herd, after no one else wanted to take them.
“I’d like to keep one for myself” Torres admitted. “But I couldn’t afford it, I have three kids and one of those animals eats as much as 10 children!"
The problem cannot be solved by adoption alone. Worldwide zoo demand for hippos is low.
Villegas says that a more feasible option for population control is to castrate the hippos that currently live in Escobar’s old estate in order to halt their reproduction.
“We have the technology and the personnel to do it,” said Villegas, who has already operated on calf.
While castration is complex and requires much anesthesia, it is the most affordable option, costing around $4,000 per hippo.
Capturing the animals, however, requires heavy machinery and specialists. It costs around $60,000 dollars per hippos and can take as long as two weeks for each Hippo, according to Colombia’s Semana magazine.
“It’s very hard to capture these animals, because they retreat to the water when they feel under threat,” Villegas said.
A Radical Solution
Some scientists have proposed more radical solutions to Colombia’s hippo problem.
Bridgitte Baptiste, the director of the Humbold Institute, an environmental research group, says that the hippos should be culled.
“Of course, its not pleasing to kill big animals, nor is it simple, it must be done in a way in which they don’t suffer,” Baptiste wrote in an op-ed published earlier this year. “But the animal rights community should collaborate with this solution instead of encouraging the growth of this terrible threat.”
Baptiste said that the money used on initiatives like castrating hippos could be used instead for the preservation of rare local species, that are under threat of extinction. But her arguments are not very popular among the farmers who now live around the hacienda napoles theme park.
“It’s like a little part of Africa in Colombia, that has been left here for us to take care of,” said Torres.
“This ‘stuffed animal effect’ is one of the big obstacles that emerges when we manage wildlife,” Baptiste added. “Few politicians want to order the sacrifice of charismatic animals, who live in remote parts of the country, where there is little governance anyways.”
Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.
Russ Finkelstein is a producer for America with Jorge Ramos.