Pablo Escobar was one of the world’s richest men in the 1980s thanks to his drug empire, and what do men with all the money in the world buy? In Escobar’s case, exotic animals. His hippos in particular have caused huge environmental problems in Colombia but now one has been involved in a car accident.
On April 11, the hippo collided with a car on a road between the Colombian cities of Medellín and Bogota. It died instantly while the driver was treated for injuries by first responders. Surprisingly, this is the first time the hippos have posed a risk to the general public.
While this is merely the first incident involving people, the hippos are causing havoc on the environment. In 2022, the hippos were declared an invasive species in Colombia and numerous efforts have been made to contain and remove the hippos.
Why are the “Cocaine Hippos” a Problem?
Before Escobar was shot dead by police in 1993, the illegally imported hippos were part of a zoo installed at his ranch, Hacienda Napoles. There were not only hippos but giraffes, elephants, and ostriches. Only four hippos lived on the ranch at the time of Escobar’s death, however after 30 years, that number has increased to approximately 130, the biggest herd outside Africa, with estimates that the number could rise to 400 in a decade.
Most of the other animals at Escobar’s zoo were relocated to zoos across the country, but the hippos were not.
“It was logistically difficult to move them around, so the authorities just left them there, probably thinking the animals would die,” Colombian biologist, Nataly Castelblanco, told the BBC.
In South America, the hippos have no natural predators and the Colombian climate has been very favourable so their population has continued to grow. Scientists warn that hippo feces will change the composition of local rivers, impacting the habitats of manatees and capybaras as well as endangering fisheries.
This wouldn’t be a huge problem if they were contained solely within the ranch, but the hippos have escaped into the surrounding waterways, primarily the River Magdalena, the country’s main waterway.
What is Being Done About the Hippos?
There have been numerous efforts to control the hippo population, though all efforts have proved so far unsuccessful.
Ownership of Escobar’s ranch was passed to the Colombian government in 2006 which was when the remaining animals, bar the hippos, were sent to zoos around the country. In 2009, the government attempted to cull the animals, but graphic photos of the culling caused national outrage and a U-turn in government policy.
In 2014, the ownership of the ranch was leased to a private company and turned into a theme park with 40 hippos as part of the attraction, though this didn’t solve the problem of the escaped hippos.
In 2021, the hippos were treated with a chemical that made them infertile. The problem is that the hippos are breeding faster than experts can find, catch, and castrate them, while also being expensive costing about £7,000 per animal.
Now in 2023, a new tactic is being tried. The local government is negotiating with a park in India, where it hopes to send 60 hippos, while in Mexico there is a sanctuary where Colombia is hoping to send 10 of the creatures. Experts believe that this effort will simply be the latest to fail as exporting them requires blood tests, sterilisation, and transport in custom crates via helicopters.
While the hippos remaining in the ranch are fine to stay, seeing as they are in a controlled environment, some locals don’t want to see the hippos gone thanks to an emerging service: hippo tourism.
One local, Álvaro Díaz, told The Guardian, “We don’t want them to be sterilised or killed. We’ve learnt how to cohabit with the hippopotamus and can read their body language so we know when they’re angry and want to be left alone. And besides, they were born here. They’re Colombians too now.”
However, Díaz’s village, Estación Cocorná, is in sharp contrast to those who live nearer to the hippos. Cocorná residents don’t come into contact with the hippos but are close enough to ferry up tourists to the beast’s home.
With public opinion against culling the animals, it isn’t clear what effective options the local government have, but if nothing is done, we may be seeing a new home for hippos.