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Colombia has a little problem: drug lord Pablo Escobar’s hippos are running rampant and multiplying. They’re a relic from the country’s cocaine-filled past and are just as controversial as their previous owner. But between the danger they pose to the locals and their dubious effects on the environment, some scientists call the hippos a ticking time bomb. The only question is: what on earth do you do with dozens of two-ton hippos?
Crash course: Pablo Escobar
Once upon a time, Pablo Escobar was the world’s most powerful drug lord. During the 1980s and early 90s, he oversaw a massive cocaine business from his estate in Colombia. His worth was estimated at $25 billion, so what did he do with his money? He built a private zoo, of course.
Escobar smuggled around 200 different animals onto his estate, including four hippopotamuses. But when he died in a shoot out in 1993, people had to figure out what to do with all these animals. Most of them were relocated to zoos and the like, but the hippos were just kind of… left there.
The hippos are multiplying, dangerous, and out of control
Today, Escobar’s legacy lives on in memories, media, and his hippos. After Escobar died, the four little rascals got busy creating their own empire.
About 14 years after Escobar died, people started noticing strange animals with small ears and big mouths. Most of them had never seen or even heard of a hippo before. After all, the huge beasts are from Africa — they only live in Africa. Well, until now. Currently, there are more than 50 hippos living in the lake near his old estate (and the nearby river).
Colombia, it turns out, is hippo paradise. They have no predators and there aren’t any of those pesky African droughts. Year-round, they splash in the water and much on plants. The females are giving birth to a new calf each year and the hippos are reaching sexual maturity several years earlier than they normally do. But they aren’t just staying around Escobar’s old estate.
The hippos have been spotted in local towns; at least one was found 155 miles away from Hacienda Napoles, Escobar’s estate. Occasionally, they crush farmers’ small cows. And while it all seems comical from afar, it’s worrying once you remember hippos are one of the deadliest animals in the world. Each year, they kill about 500 people. That’s more than the death count from lions, tigers, and bears combined.
Another problem: Colombians don’t necessarily realize how deadly hippos can be. In Africa, people know how dangerous they are, but to many Colombians, the animals are cute and cuddly. One Colombian newspaper reported that parents are even bringing baby hippos home to their kids. As far as we know, Escobar’s hippos haven’t killed anyone. But as their numbers continue to grow and they spread further out, they become a bigger threat.
Scientists debate over whether Escobar’s hippos are good or bad for the environment
Essentially, Pablo Escobar’s hippos are an invasive species. The Colombian ecosystem has no checks and balances to contain their numbers. Scientists are worried the hippos will push out native mammals like otters and manatees. Plus, there is a myriad of other effects they may be having on the ecosystem, like threatening its biodiversity.
Hippos are known as “ecosystem engineers” because they affect the ecology around them so strongly. They eat on land and excrete in water, thus moving nutrients into rivers and lakes. Their huge bodies move water, creating channels and altering the wetlands around them.
For some, it’s worrying to think of all these hippo engineers in a new environment. But other biologists believe they could actually be a welcome addition to the ecosystem. In the last 20,000 years, several large herbivore species have gone extinct in South America. It’s possible that hippos can replace these long lost mammals. But none of them were really like hippos.
So what to do about these cocaine hippos?
Between the danger to humans and the possible ecological consequences, Colombia has been very keen on dealing with the hippos one way or another. Unfortunately, there is no easy way to do it.
To encourage the hippos to stay put, the Colombian government feeds the hippos around Escobar’s old estate-turned-amusement-park. However, hippo social structure has an issue with that. Hippos live in harem groups: one alpha male and several females. El Viejo, the alpha hippo, scares younger males away from mating with the females. So the males move upriver to start their own harems, thus spreading outside of Hacienda Napoles.
The government also tried to put up fences around the hippo territory, but the animals just jumped over them. Building actually hippo-proof fences and rounding up all the wild hippos would cost about $500,000. Unfortunately, Colombia doesn’t have a lot of money.
Since the hippos won’t stay in one place, the government thought they might be able to cull the beasts (cull, as in the euphemism for killing). But after one hippo was shot, the resulting public outcry dissuaded them from trying that again. And now it’s illegal to kill hippos in Colombia.
They’ve tried castrating the hippos (y’know, cutting off their testicles) but it’s incredibly dangerous, expensive, and difficult (most things with these hippos are). The process puts the vets in danger as well as the hippos, which are very sensitive to sedation. At one point, veterinarians were able to do one castration a year. But with five to ten new hippos each year, that rate could never contain the animals.
One biologist says the locals should just eat the hippos. But this could spread disease, so it’s probably not the best idea.
Colombia could try relocating the hippos, but they can’t go back to Africa for fear of spreading disease. And while a couple of calves have been put in captivity, there are few zoos willing to take adults. So there appears to be nowhere to put them.
And to complicate it all, some people don’t want the hippos to go anywhere. For example, with hippos vulnerable to extinction, some scientists think this exo-African population could be good for the species. Also, many of the local people have grown attached to the animals. Plus, they’re an attraction in the Escobar estate amusement park.
The whole thing is simply a mess. After all, as the lead biologist on the matter said, you can’t just google, “I have a group of hippos outside of their natural habitat. What do I do?” It’s an experiment no one asked for, but Colombia is stuck with.