In Colombia’s Antioquia region, an unusual and potentially dangerous legacy of a bygone era has taken root.
Descendants of hippos imported by notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar during the 1980s now roam the Colombian countryside.
These once-private zoo inhabitants have multiplied and become a significant challenge for the country’s authorities.
The Colombian government, under the guidance of Environment Minister Susana Muhamad, is faced with the difficult task of managing these invasive creatures.
In a recent announcement, she unveiled a multifaceted plan to tackle the problem, which includes sterilization, relocation, and, as a last resort, killing them.
The story of Colombia‘s hippos begins with Pablo Escobar, the infamous leader of the Medellín cartel. Escobar, often referred to as the “cocaine king,” used his immense wealth to create a private paradise known as Hacienda Nápoles, covering 5,500 acres of land. Within this sprawling estate, he established a private zoo that featured exotic animals, including four hippos. However, when the drug lord met his demise in a police shootout in 1993, the estate was handed over to locals, leaving the hippos to roam free. In their new environment, with a lack of natural predators and a habitat conducive to their reproduction, the hippo population thrived.
Over the years, experts and conservationists have grappled with the growing hippo population. Multiple approaches, such as sterilization and transferring individual animals to foreign zoos, were attempted to control their numbers, but these efforts proved unsuccessful. The risk of these hippos becoming an even more significant problem became evident when they were declared an invasive species last year, officially opening the door to the possibility of a cull.
Minister Muhamad’s plan to manage the hippos is multifaceted, acknowledging the unique challenges presented by these massive, dangerous creatures. The proposal includes sterilizing some individuals to slow their reproductive rate, transferring others to foreign countries, and, as a last resort, killing some. However, it’s important to note that any export of the animals will only proceed with authorization from the environmental authorities of the receiving country, ensuring the well-being of the animals.
Colombian experts have long warned that the uncontrolled growth of the hippo population poses threats to humans and native wildlife. Estimates suggest that without intervention, the population could reach 1,000 by 2035. The potential danger is not to be underestimated, as hippos are among the largest land animals and are responsible for approximately 500 human fatalities annually.
Fishing communities along the Magdalena River have reported encounters with these massive mammals, and there have been incidents where hippos have ventured into public spaces, such as a schoolyard. Though there have been no reported human fatalities.
The decision to consider killing them as a last resort has sparked debate and controversy. Animal activists argue that sterilization may entail suffering for the animals and risks for the veterinarians involved, while slaughter is seen as a drastic measure. The dilemma reveals the complexity of managing invasive species and the ethical considerations that come with it.
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This article by Trinity Sparke was first published by One Green Planet on 7 November 2023. Image Credit :PhotocechCZ/Shutterstock.