One of the most outlandish stories to come out of Colombia’s struggle with drug cartels has to do with wild hippos. Yes, really. Legend goes that at the peak of the cocaine trade things got so extravagant that the leader of the Medellín Cartel, Pablo Escobar, had dozens of wild African animals flown into his private estate.
But aren’t hippos supposed to live only… like in Africa?
Yes, hippopotamus are definitely not endemic to Colombia. They formed part of Pablo Escobar’s private zoo at his infamous estate, Hacienda Nápoles.
Even though there are strict laws regarding the traffic of wild and endangered species, oftentimes money has the last word when there is crime and corruption involved. Because the region of Antioquia is hot and humid, the four original hippos found an ideal spot to thrive and there are now up to 100. And they are breeding at alarming rates.
Once Escobar was captured the hippos roamed free and now there are calls to shoot them.
Contrary to what their chubby and cute appearance might make us believe, hippos are basically at the top of their ecosystem. They are incredibly strong and aggressive when they need to be, so they have no natural predators in Colombia.
So a few hippos became many and have they’ve been scaring the local communities and disrupting the ecosystem for years. Sounds like something out of a Gabriel García Márquez magical realism novel! These hippos have become the largest invasive species in the planet, and scientists warn that their numbers could skyrocket to 1,500 in the next few years.
Their poo and urine are toxic.
The main issue is that their feces and urine can be harmful to other animals and potentially hurt humans – as if we didn’t have enough interspecies infections at the moment!
Just last year there were claims that the “cocaine hippos” were actually helping revitalize the ecosystem, but the theory has been somewhat discredited.
But what can be done with these poor gentle giants? Sadly, not much.
The Colombian government has a big decision to make. Is culling the only option or could the hippos be spared so they can live a long and happy life?
When a foreign species enters an ecosystem, it can cause havoc. In places like Australia and New Zealand, for example, even the humble domestic cat has gone feral and has greatly affected the populations of reptile and bird species (these feral cats are massive!). But sadly, according to scientists, relocating the animals or sterilizing them effectively enough to stop them from breeding at a fast rate is no longer an option.