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Explained: Why scientists want Pablo Escobar’s hippos in Colombia culled

Almost three decades after the gangster was killed by the police, Colombia is grappling with another troubling aspect of his legacy – feral hippopotamuses that are threatening the country’s fragile tropical ecology.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: February 12, 2021 8:48:38 am
Pablo Escobar hippo, columbia hippopotamus, columbia hippopotamus problem, Pablo Escobar hippos, cocaine hippos, hippopotamus culling columbia, indian expressHippos float in the lake at Hacienda Napoles Park, once the private estate of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. (Photo: AP)

When notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar dominated the cocaine trade during the 1980s and early 90s, he brought a wave of violence to Colombia, which included bombings, murders and kidnappings.

Now, almost three decades after the gangster was hunted down and killed by the police, Colombia is grappling with another troubling aspect of his legacy– feral hippopotamuses that are threatening the country’s fragile tropical ecology.

Colombia’s ‘cocaine hippos’

Escobar, who was considered the world’s wealthiest narco trafficker, had many extravagances, one of which was collecting exotic wild animals at his luxurious Hacienda Nápoles fortress, 250 km northwest of Colombia’s capital Bogotá. His private zoo boasted of a variety of animals illegally imported into the country, such as kangaroos, elephants, giraffes and hippos.

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When Escobar was killed in 1993, most of the animals on the sprawling estate were rounded up and distributed to zoos across the country, except his four hippos–one male and three females– which authorities found too difficult and expensive to transport.

Left undisturbed, the hippos multiplied to 16 by 2007, 40 by 2014, and are currently estimated to number between 90 and 120 over an area of more than 2,250 sq km. Within a decade, their population is expected to grow to 200, and thousands in the next few decades. According to an expert speaking to BBC, Colombia’s hippo herd is now the biggest outside Africa.

The ‘cocaine hippos’ are thriving in the fertile region between Medellín and Bogotá, and are now spreading in the Magdalena River, one of the country’s main waterways. A reason for their growing numbers is that unlike in Africa, the hippos have no natural predators in Colombia.

Why scientists want them culled

Being non-native in Colombia, the hippos are considered an invasive species, and their growing population is believed to be a ticking time bomb that will seriously harm indigenous flora and fauna.

They are considered to be a threat to local species such as the West Indian manatee, Neotropical otter, spectacled caiman, turtles as well as endangered ones such as Dahl’s toad-headed turtle and the Magdalena River turtle. Growth in the number of feral hippos is also expected to cause deadly encounters with humans.

A study published in the journal Biological Conservation in January this year argues that culling the hippos is the only option to deal with this menace. It says that if the hippos are not killed now, their numbers could expand to 1,500 by 2035. To prevent their environmental impact, 30 animals need to be killed or castrated every year to stop their numbers from expanding.

Castration, however, is an option that has already been dismissed by many in the past, mainly due to the animal’s aggressive behaviour even while being in a sedated state, and due to the procedure’s high cost. A castration performed in 2009 cost $50,000, according to the BBC.

Ecologist Nataly Castelblanco-Martínez, the lead author of the study, has described the hippo problem to the Associated Press as “one of the greatest challenges of invasive species in the world”.

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Last year, another study found that the hippos have caused levels of nutrients and cyanobacteria to go up in the lakes that they inhabit, which can lead to toxic algae blooms and die-offs of aquatic fauna.

Resistance by locals

Despite the negative impacts that several studies have attributed to the feral hippos, the exotic animals are hugely popular among locals, and the government has imposed a ban on hunting them. In 2009, when Colombian Army soldiers gunned down a feral hippo called Pepe, it led to a massive public outcry.

For many local people, the hippos are a source of revenue from tourism, and culling them is an unpalatable idea. Some experts too oppose the idea to cull them, arguing that the ‘cocaine hippos’ offer an opportunity to preserve the global number of hippopotamuses, which are regarded by many NGOs as a vulnerable species.

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