Distraction Free Reading

Audio Ethnographies of Water from Latin America: Aquatic Attractions

Forty years ago, four hippos arrived in Colombia. Drug trafficker Pablo Escobar illegally imported them as part of his project to build an open-door zoo at Hacienda Naples, his enormous farm located in the Magdalena River Basin. Among many other luxuries and eccentricities, the farm housed 1,200 animals. It also included artificial lakes where the aquatic animals lived. After Escobar’s death in 1993, when the Hacienda Napoles was abandoned, most of the animals died due to lack of care, and others were transferred to other zoos. Only the hippos remained, sheltering in the lakes. In Colombia, over 160 hippos inhabit various locations. Some reside in areas formerly part of Hacienda Napoles, while others are dispersed along the Magdalena River.

In 2000, the government handed over most of Escobar’s ranch to a private company to build an amusement park. In a short time, the company established a new landscape intending to eliminate the residue of Pablo Escobar’s past and drug trafficking. Thus, the landing strip was transformed into a water park, the garage where Escobar’s car collection was kept became a museum that intends to honor the victims of drug trafficking, and Escobar’s mansion became an attraction that tells the story of Vanessa, a small hippopotamus who lives captive in the park.

Nowadays, Vanessa and two other young hippos, descendants of the first animals imported to Colombia, are kept in captivity in the park. The park administration encourages tourists to call them by their names and sells food for visitors to feed them. Thus, during weekends and vacation seasons, Vanessa and the other hippos hear their names shouted and docilely respond to the call of curious tourists who want to see what a hippo looks like up close.

However, these captive animals are not the only hippos living in the old hacienda area. In one of the lakes built by Escobar resides a colony of approximately 60 hippos living in the wild. The company has called this lake “Lago Hipopotamo”(Hippo Lake) and has also incorporated it into its attractions, building a luxury hotel just in front of it called “Hotel Africa.” Over time, the park’s hippo population has continued to grow. For this reason, the park’s hippos tend to cross its limits to look for other bodies of water and food. Sometimes, the hippos leave the park, cross the main avenue, and arrive at El Doradal, the closest town to the park. In the last decades, their presence in Doradal village has become more frequent, which has caused accidents in which both hippos and humans have been injured.

Scientists and public officials have insisted on designating the hippos as an invasive species due to the damage they could cause to the river, its aquatic fauna, and riverine inhabitants. To date, scientists have counted 169 hippos distributed in the middle part of the basin, while digital models predict the population will increase to 300 hippos by 2030. They also indicate that without controlled hunting, more than half of the Magdalena River will be inhabited by 1,500 hippos in the coming decades (Castelblanco-Martínez et al. 2021). After intense debates addressing the possible future impacts of hippos in the river, their links to drug trafficking upon arrival in Colombia, and their status as sentient beings with the right to live, the Colombian government designated hippos as an invasive species in 2022. This designation opened the possibility of the government carrying out controlled hunting as one of the strategies to limit the hippo population’s growth and protect the river basin’s future.

The declaration of the hippos as invasive and the possibility of controlled hunting has been rejected by some local communities, who have learned to interact with them and no longer consider them dangerous creatures. Similarly, animal rights defenders protest the controlled haunting of the hippos and have taken legal action in the courts to defend their right to live, arguing their status as victims of illegal animal trafficking. In addition, using adjectives like “cocaine hippos” or “Pablo Escobar’s hippos,” national and international news outlets report the increasingly frequent interaction of hippos with humans that range from playful encounters at the amusement park to dangerous hippo attacks on the riverine population and collisions between vehicles and hippos. The news also exposes scientists’ concerns about the consequences of not acting in time on the uncontrolled growth of the hippo population. Thus, multiple voices discuss hippos’ present and future presence in Colombia.

But what would the hippos tell us about their presence and fate in Colombia if we could listen to them? What could we learn if we listen with these animals to the sounds of these emergent ecologies that include forests, streams, artificial lakes, animals in and out of cages, happy tourists, curious inhabitants, cars, motorbikes, the river, and hippos themselves? How could we imagine the future of the river inhabited by hundreds of hippos if we hear from them what it is like to live in these emerging ecologies? This audio ethnography faces the challenge of listening with the hippos in this emergent ecology where the residues of drug trafficking, the large-scale business of tourism, and the predictions of scientific models that speak of a catastrophic future for the Magdalena River converge.

In the initial segment, the audio speculates on Vanessa’s experience with the sounds of water attractions—the playful splashes in the pool and the joyous shouts of families enjoying what was once the Napoles hacienda. The recording captures the excitement of both children and adults eagerly calling out to Vanessa, eager to get a closer look. Additionally, the piece ponders what the wild hippos in Hippo’s Lake might hear when they are out of the water. Their vocalizations blend with the impatient murmurs of tourists awaiting the hippos’ emergence, all against a backdrop of constant vehicle movement—cars and motorcycles transporting guests of the Africa Hotel and other tourists visiting the lake. Subsequently, the audio delves into the hypothetical soundscape as hippos transition from Hippo Lake to the town of Doradal. This includes the enthusiastic cries of locals upon sensing their presence, intertwined with news reports detailing accidents involving hippos and drivers. Lastly, drawing inspiration from scientific predictive models, the audio imagines the auditory landscape of a Colombian river inhabited by hundreds of hippos.

As a listening practice, “listening with” speculative encounters stimulates sound sensibilities in the sensory encounter with other-than-human entities—both animate and inanimate. This imaginative piece facilitates an infrastructure of meaning built from discussion and debate and made from multiple connections and interruptions that leave more questions than answers. In editing this soundscape, I invite others to listen with me, the hippos, and the water, being aware that this leaves us without definitive conclusions and confronts us with the existential void of not knowing what the future of a Colombian river inhabited by hippos will be like.

Listen to the audio ethnography:

Audio Description

This post was curated by Multimodal Contributing Editor Pablo Aguilera Del Castillo.


D.N. Castelblanco-Martínez et al., “A Hippo in the Room: Predicting the Persistence and Dispersion of an Invasive Mega-Vertebrate in Colombia, South America,” Biological Conservation 253 (January 2021): 108923, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2020.108923.

Eben Kirksey, Emergent Ecologies (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015).

Cymene Howe, “Sensing Asymmetries in Other-than-Human Forms,” Science, Technology, & Human Values 44, no. 5 (September 2019): 900–910, https://doi.org/10.1177/0162243919852675.

Mark Peter Wright, Listening after Nature: Field Recording, Ecology, Critical Practice (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2022).

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