World First Look

Salvadorans mourn the violent death of Gustavito the hippo (+video)

In a country struggling to curb gang violence, the brutal and unexplained death of a beloved zoo animal has triggered outrage and grief.

In this frame grab from video taken on March 10, 2014 and released by El Salvador's Canal 9, the hippo Gustavito is fed at the San Salvador Zoo in El Salvador.
Canal 9 via AP | Caption

A mysterious and deadly attack on Gustavito the hippo has left Salvadorans searching for answers.

The beloved animal died from his wounds at El Salvador’s National Zoological Park late Sunday following an attack earlier in the week. That attack went unobserved, and it was only on Thursday, when zoo staff noticed Gustavito was behaving strangely, that they noticed his injuries. Though they cared for him around the clock, the staff were unable to save the hippo.

Despite pervasive gang activity that has numbed many Salvadorans to violence, Gustavito’s death shocked a nation. The Justice Department has opened an investigation into the attack, while ordinary people are openly sharing their grief.

"Here we're used to seeing the dead every day," Martin Castillo, a street vendor in the capital's historic downtown, told the Associated Press on Monday. "They kill us like flies, but this tops it all. They killed an animal that only entertained us."

El Salvador is the smallest country in Central America. It’s also one of the most violent, with street gangs widely blamed for the country’s high homicide rate. Last year 5,278 murders were recorded, for an average of 14 homicides per day.

Gustavito was born in neighboring Guatemala, but arrived in El Salvador 13 years ago. For more than a decade, he was one of the main attractions at the national zoo, located in the capital, San Salvador.

On Thursday, however, zookeepers noticed that the hippo was behaving strangely. He remained in his pool of water for extended periods of time, and had also stopped eating. When keepers investigated, they found that Gustavito had wounds and bruising on his face, neck, feet, and even inside his mouth. The injuries to his mouth, zoo director Vladan Henriquez said, likely came as he tried to defend himself.

The injuries were caused by “blunt and sharp objects,” the Ministry of Culture said in a statement. Mr. Henriquez identified these objects as metal bars, knives, and rocks, some evidence of which was found in the hippo’s enclosure. The zoo believes he was attacked sometime on Wednesday, CNN reported.

In the wake of the attack, the zoo closed its doors and doubled security. Some Salvadorans left flowers at the zoo gates in remembrance, while others took to social media to share their outrage over the attack. The hashtags #Gustavito and #todossomosgustavito (We are all Gustavito) spread worldwide as more people learned of the incident.

The Justice Department has opened an investigation into Gustavito’s death, Justice Minister Mauricio Ramirez Landaverde said, according to the Associated Press.

The attack on Gustavito was “cowardly and inhumane,” the Ministry of Culture said in a statement, according to the BBC.