Latin America and Caribbean Workshop | Javier González Cortés, Rutgers University

"Fear and Loathing of 'Pablo Escobar’s Hippos': An Emotional History of a Mega-Biodiverse Country like Colombia"
Friday, November 3, 2023, 4:30 pm6:00 pm
Rutgers University - 301 Van Dyck Hall



Event Description

Friday, November 3, 2023
4:30 p.m. | Rutgers University - 301 Van Dyck Hall 
"Fear and Loathing of 'Pablo Escobar’s Hippos':  An Emotional History of a Mega-Biodiverse Country like Colombia"
Javier González Cortés, Rutgers University

This workshop will be held in a hybrid format, with attendees both in-person and online via Zoom. To receive the Zoom meeting information, email Santiago Conti at [email protected].

The pre-circulated paper will be available one-week prior to the workshop. The paper will be available to the Princeton University community via SharePoint. All others should request a copy of the paper by emailing Santiago Conti at [email protected].

In the early 1980s, Colombian drug trafficker Pablo Escobar imported rhinos, elephants, zebras, ostriches, kangaroos, and hippopotamuses, among many other animals, to the Hacienda Nápoles, a relatively large property located in the Magdalena River basin in Colombia. After Escobar's death in 1993, the hacienda was abandoned and some hippos left it. Today, approximately 150 individuals live free in the swampy and warm habitats of the region known as Magdalena Medio. A heated discussion about the fate of the animals has taken place since 2009, when the hippopotamus Pepe was hunted because of a control plan approved by the local environmental authority. Scientists, particularly conservation biologists, and other people aligned with their ways of thinking and feeling, consider hippos a major threat that must be managed immediately and preferably by lethal means. Since Pepe's death, animal advocates have been calling for different ways of managing the hippo population. In 2021, the same year that a group of conservation biologists published an influential paper warning about worrying trends in hippo population growth in the country, the animals were officially listed as an invasive species by Colombia's Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development. In this paper I explore a series of publications by conservation biologists, their presence in the mass media and on their social media accounts (i.e., Twitter) to reveal how they have managed to position and control the narrative that refers to the phenomenon as a case where an "invasive mega-vertebrate" threatens the mega-biodiversity of a country like Colombia. Despite the efforts to expose their position as scientific and free of passion, I argue that their motivations are highly emotionally laden. To this end, I engage in a historical and anthropological analysis that demonstrates that their ideas and feelings are deeply informed by (i) personal emotional histories; (ii) the character of conservation biology as a "crisis" discipline, which has not only erroneously repeated the mantra of invasive species as the second greatest threat to biodiversity, but has also dismissed claims for the life and well-being of animals as sentient individuals; (iii) patriotic ideas that place biodiversity, on the one hand, and the Magdalena River, on the other, as symbols of great importance in the Colombian nation-building process; and (iv( the cultural relevance of Pablo Escobar for a country and for a region that continues to face his tangible and intangible legacies associated with violence, and for the world, which has identified the animals in this story as the "cocaine hippopotamuses" or the "narco-hippopotamuses."

Sponsored by Princeton University’s Center for Collaborative History and the Program in Latin American Studies, and by Rutgers University’s Center for Latin American Studies and Department of History.


Santiago Conti
Scholarly Series
Latin America and Caribbean Workshop