Colombia is proposing to capture and transport 70 hippopotamuses to India and Mexico after a large population of the African species was allowed to proliferate in the river and lakes around the late Pablo Escobar’s estate.
What started as four illegally imported “cocaine hippos,” who were pets of the cartel kingpin, quickly multiplied to a group of 150 strong in the absence of any natural predators, Nature reports. The Colombian government has largely left the hippos unchecked until now, despite the fact that they are wreaking havoc on the area’s ecology, researchers say.
The cocaine hippos escaped Escobar’s Hacienda Napoles ranch after the drug lord was killed by national police in 1993. Since then, the hippos have taken up residence in the nearby Magdalena River watershed and beyond, where they could proliferate to 1,500 in 16 years, according to 2021 modelling.
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Escobar’s Hacienda Napoles — and the hippos — have become a local tourist attraction in the years since the kingpin died. But the question of how to address the hippo issue has pitted some locals against ecologists, with some “enamoured by the animals’ charisma and value as a tourist attraction and others concerned about the threat they pose to the environment and local fishing communities,” Nature writes.
Scientists warn that the hippos do not have a natural predator in Colombia and are a potential problem for biodiversity since their feces changes the composition of the rivers and could impact the habitat of manatees and capybaras.
“If we don’t do anything, 20 years from now the problem will have no solution,” says Nataly Castelblanco Martínez, a Colombian conservation biologist at the Autonomous University of Quintana Roo.
The plan to take them to India and Mexico has been forming for more than a year, said Lina Marcela de los Ríos Morales, director of animal protection and welfare at Antioquia’s environment ministry.
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The hippos would be lured with food into large, iron containers and transferred by truck to the city of Rionegro, 150 kilometres away. From there, they would be flown to India and Mexico, where there are sanctuaries and zoos capable of taking in and caring for the animals.
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“It is possible to do, we already have experience relocating hippos in zoos nationwide,” said David Echeverri López, a spokesman for Cornare, the local environmental authority that would be in charge of the relocations.
The plan is to send 60 hippos to the Greens Zoological Rescue & Rehabilitation Kingdom in Gujarat, India, which De los Ríos Morales said would cover the cost of the containers and airlift. Another 10 hippos would go to zoos and sanctuaries in Mexico such as the Ostok, located in Sinaloa.
In 2022, Colombia’s government declared the cocaine hippos a toxic invasive species, sparking fears among the locals that the beloved animals would be culled or sterilized.
At the time, Environment Minister Carlos Eduardo Correa said local communities would be consulted about any plan to control the hippos’ population.
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Álvaro Molina, 57, a local to the area, told The Associated Press that he supported the hippos — despite having been attacked by one in the past. He was out fishing one day when he felt a movement beneath his canoe that spilled him into the water.
“The female attacked me once,” he said, “because she had recently given birth.”
At the time, Molina said he feared that the government meant to harm the hippos. Nature reports that researchers in the country had called for a strict management plan that involved culling some hippos and capturing and relocating others.
Many people AP interviewed in the area said they got along with the hippos and opposed even sterilizing them, let alone killing some.
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“They make laws from a distance. We live with the hippopotamuses here and we have never thought of killing them,” Isabel Romero Jerez, a local conservationist, said in 2022. “The hippopotamuses aren’t African now; they are Colombians.”
Hopefully, the current plan to transport about half of the hippos out of South America strikes the right balance for ecologists and locals alike.
De los Ríos Morales said the relocation would help control the hippo population, and that deporting them is a more humane alternative to exterminating them as an invasive species.
— With files from The Associated Press
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