Columbia Plagued by 200 Cocaine Hippos Smuggled By Pablo Escobar

A recent comprehensive census of Hippos in the country has revealed the hippo population in Columbia is double the estimated population.

Hippopotamuses are not a species that are native to Columbia. The Columbian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar illegally imported 3 female and 1 male hippopotamus from Africa in the late 1970s. After he was shot dead by the police in 1993, the hippos were too difficult to capture so they were left to wander unattended around Pablo’s estate.

By 2007, the 4 animals had quadrupled to 16, and later more than doubled again to 40 in 2014. The estimated population in December 2019 was around 90-120, spread across 2,250 square kilometres. The 2019 estimate predicted the hippo population to go over 150 within a decade, however, a recent census survey which counted the hippos in person, with drones, and other tracking methods estimated the population to be around 181-215. 

Without their natural predators and the climate conditions of their native habitat, the hippos are nearly unstoppable. In 2009, an aggressive male hippo was ordered to be killed, however, the photo that the soldiers took with the dead animal sparked huge outrage so officials stopped hunting them.

Hippos in Columbia bring in tourists, but they are a huge menace to the fishing communities. Hippos stay under the water for multiple hours at a time and have enough jaw strength to bit off a limb or two. Fighting against a hippopotamus if it attacks you is pointless as these 3 ton animals are not just strong but also fast. 

Counting these hippos was not an easy task. These animals are nocturnal, stay underwater for up to 16 hours, and move across a large area. Researchers made various trips by car, boat and even on foot to count this animal. When seeing the animals in person wasn’t viable, drones were used or footprints were recorded to make an estimated guess.

37% of the hippos counted in the census are babies, implying a rapid breeding rate among the animals. One reason could be the lush environment of Columbia that is helping the hippos reach sexual maturity faster than in Africa. Another could be the lack of predators, meaning more babies survive to adulthood.

These hippos are a menace to the ecosystem as they dig out muddy paths to divide the forest, erode riverbanks, and outcompete native animals like the West Indian Manatee and Capybara. 

A solution to this invasive species is a contraceptive dart. It may get rid of a hippo’s ability to reproduce, but it is slow, expensive, and hasn’t been tested at such a scale yet. A study in April estimated a cost of US$850,000 to eradicate all the hippos using these contraceptive darts, however, it will take up to 45 years.

Another solution is to simply capture and castrate these hippos by anaesthetizing them and transporting them to a facility that castrates hippos by helicopter. This method would cost less, US$530,000, but take up to 52 years to eradicate the entire population. 

The agency responsible for dealing with these animals is running low on funds. The contraceptive darts were donated to Columbia by the USA. They are in talks with India and Mexico to relocate some of the hippos, but it would cost US$3.5 million.

Many researchers support simply killing the hippos. It is the fastest, easiest, and cheapest way to get rid of this invasive species. The deaths of a few hundred hippos are not sufficiently significant compared to the native flora and fauna of Columbia which is in danger because of them. 

“There is a moral weight to the decision to cull a hippo. But the weight of the other decision — inaction — is far greater,” says ecologist Rafael Moreno, a participant in the study while at the Alexander von Humboldt Biological Resources Research Institute in Bogotá.

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