No country for young hippopotamuses

A guest post by friend of the blog, Carlos Colorado

Occasionally, something happens in El Salvador so horrendous that it provokes widespread indignation and soul-searching for the constantly-tested yet surprisingly tender Salvadoran psyche.  Such has been the case with the news that Gustavito, the 15 year-old hippopotamus of the San Salvador zoo, was attacked by unknown aggressors with icepicks, metal bars and stones in the wee hours of Thursday, February 23.  He died from his injuries this past Sunday evening.

One of many editorials decrying the incident declared El Salvador “The land of eternal shame,” and questioned the moral fabric of a society wherein such an event occurs.  The editorial lamented that “not only did Gustavito have to live like a Salvadoran, amid a great scarcity of resources, but he had to die murdered in the middle of that spiral of hatred, violence and blood that has accompanied us for almost four decades—first, the Civil War violence, then the social violence” of gang crime.  “We are a country,” the editorialists railed, “which, before the eyes of the world, produces only death, violence and gangs.  And our only import is immigrants fleeing from poverty and maras.”

The editorial denounces Salvadoran society, which sees its youth massacred every day, to the extent that it grows desensitized to their deaths; yet, to cruelly attack a captive animal on display at a zoo seems like a new low which disturbs the most hardened conscience.  “How do we justify that?”

The recriminations have reverberated on social media since the weekend, with outraged and shocked citizens calling for the heads not only of the attackers (about whom there seem to be no leads), but also of the zoo security personnel and administrators, with many openly calling for the closing of the zoo.  To some extent, it seems like a crime so perverse that it is impossible to limit the culpability to a single person or group: it seems as if all of El Salvador is implicated in some sort of communal guilt.

Obviously, much of that will be scaled back when the dust settles, the shock subsides and the news can be seen with a due dosage of perspective.  However, one area in which further reflection may be warranted is in the balance of urban Salvadoran society with the natural environment.  As this blog recently posted, there is a debate afoot about whether to restrict mining in El Salvador, with the Roman Catholic Church pushing for a law to ban metallic mining in the country.

As late as the middle of the 20th Century, El Salvador was a largely rural country, in which coexistence with a somewhat varied fauna (including, in some places, monkeys, jaguars and alligators) was part of the national identity.  As a result of overpopulation, and the gritty onslaught of urban decay and social instability, El Salvador has become a country of pollution-choked rivers, vanishing forests and mountains being swallowed by hyper urbanization.  It has become—I hate to say it—no country for young hippopotamuses.