Cocaine hippos

Manjula Padmanabhan | Updated on March 27, 2020

“Your turn!” I say to Bins, triumphantly. He’s on the other side of the planet from me. Morning for him, night for me. So yes, he’s just woken up. “Huh?” he says, managing to sound grumpy, sleepy and puzzled all at once.

I have to remind him that he’d suggested we must not refer to the pandemic during our WhatsApp chats, but instead must look for interesting, mind-expanding stories unconnected to viruses and the imminent collapse of civilisation. I had gone first and proposed various topics for discussion, including one that sent him back to sleep. So now it was his turn. “Oh, THAT,” he groans. I can just see him scowling thunderously, as he stands in the backyard of our home in New Delhi, pulling on his straggly grey moustache in irritation. He absolutely hates being pressured to say or do anything.

“Ouff!” he huffs and snorts, “it’s too early! I’ve not had breakfast yet! There’s a three-week lock-down! The virus might jump out and attack me while I’m trying to find something interesting to talk about in this boring world!” But I refuse to let him off the hook. It takes him a full 15 minutes before he says, “What about the hippos? Have you heard about them?” “Obviously,” I say, scornfully. “How can you even ask such a question?”

“I’m not talking about common or garden-variety hippos,” says Bins. “Don’t be ridiculous,” I cut in. “Hippos live in lakes and rivers, not gardens.” “Are you going to listen or not?” says Bins. “I’m talking about the wild hippos in Colombia!” “Pooh!” I cut in again. “Hippos live in Africa, not South America. Everyone knows that” “Wrong!” exclaims Bins. “There’s a herd that’s been living happily in Colombia!”

It turns out they’re descendants of the hippos in a private zoo once owned by the late drug-lord Pablo Escobar. He was killed in 1993. The other exotic animals he had owned were parcelled off to zoos in other countries. But the 1,500-kg semi-aquatic hippos adapted so well to their new home that they settled in for good. “They’re called cocaine hippos!” says Bins. “Yikes!” I say, immediately imagining a giant creature snuffling up foot-long strips of white powder with its huge round nostrils. “They’ve all become addicts?”

Bins howls with laughter. “No, no!” he says. “It’s because Escobar was a drug lord. That’s how he could afford to import a breeding pair of such large animals from their African home!” Most animals that become transplanted to a new home are regarded as unwanted invasive species that disrupt the local flora and fauna. The hippos have not only made themselves entirely comfortable, but they’ve also been beneficial to the environment by their feeding and excreting activities. “Plus! They attract tourists,” says Bins, “who also enrich the environment with their feeding and excreting activities...”

“Wow!” I say, “great story.” “My breakfast is ready,” says Bins. “And my bed is ready,” I say. “Goodnight!”

Manjula Padmanabhan, author and artist, writes of her life in the fictional town of Elsewhere, US, in this weekly column

Published on March 27, 2020

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