Hunt called off for drug lord's hippo

BOGOTA Thu Jul 16, 2009 12:19pm EDT

1 of 4. An animal activist protests against the killing of a hippopotamus in Bogota July 14, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/John Vizcaino

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BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia has called off the hunt to kill a drug lord's escaped hippo and will instead try to relocate the beast after its mate was shot dead by order of the government, sparking outrage from animal rights groups.

The giant animals were imported from Africa by late cocaine king Pablo Escobar and put in his zoo. They escaped in 2006 to live in the wild near the Magdalena river in northern Colombia, causing concerns about local public safety.

Colombia was shocked on Friday when photographs were published of the dead hippo, named "Pepe", and by news that the hunt was still on for his mate, "Matilda," who gave birth to a calf in the wild.

Bogota-based beer company Bavaria, owned by SABMiller, offered to bring in animal protection experts from South Africa and Tanzania to find the best way to care for the surviving hippo and her calf.

"We have accepted Bavaria's offer. The hunt is off," a spokeswoman for Colombia's Environment Ministry told Reuters on Wednesday. "The idea is to relocate the animals."

Scores of protesters picketed ministry offices in Bogota on Tuesday, objecting to what they called the "death sentence" handed down against the hippos.

Pepe was killed by a .375 caliber round through his heart. It was a fate not unlike that of Escobar, who controlled most of the world's cocaine supply before being gunned down by police on a Medellin rooftop in 1993.

He was so flush with cash in the 1980s that he flew in hundreds of exotic animals, including kangaroos, elephants, rhinos and nine hippos.

The African zoologists will also study what to do with the two dozen hippos still living at the site of Escobar's zoo, called Hacienda Napoles in the northern province of Antioquia.

"The experts, once they are here on the ground, can help with our effort at finding the best possible place for these animals to live, either inside or outside Colombia," said a statement issued by the Environment Ministry.

Most of the other animals imported by Escobar, seen by Colombians as symbols of his power and extravagance, were given to local public zoos after his death.

(Reporting by Hugh Bronstein, Editing by Sandra Maler)

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