Conservation: Escobar's legacy: Colombia's fight against the hippos

Drug lord Pablo Escobar once brought four African hippos to Colombia for his private zoo - the animals, which weigh several tons, have now become a real plague in the South American country.

Conservation: Escobar's legacy: Colombia's fight against the hippos

Drug lord Pablo Escobar once brought four African hippos to Colombia for his private zoo - the animals, which weigh several tons, have now become a real plague in the South American country. The hippos disrupt the ecosystem, destroy fields and endanger local residents. Now the hippos should be sterilized to at least stop the further spread of the invasive species.

"Surgical sterilization is just one of the three measures envisaged by the Ministry of the Environment as part of the plan for the management and control of hippos in Colombia," said Colombian Environment Minister Susana Muhamad when presenting the plan. Further steps should include euthanizing and relocating the animals.

Hippos threaten Colombia's ecosystem

Drug lord Pablo Escobar brought four African hippos to Colombia in the 1980s so that they could frolic with elephants, giraffes, kangaroos and other exotic animals in his private zoo on the luxury Hacienda Napolés estate, about 190 kilometers from Medellín. When Escobar was shot dead by security forces in 1993, the hippos were left to fend for themselves.

Over the past 30 years, the original four animals have reproduced and expanded vigorously. More than 160 specimens are currently said to live around the Rio Magdalena. Food and water for the hippos are plentiful in the South American country. They like the climate and have no natural enemies. If no strict measures are taken, the population could grow to 1,000 animals by 2035, the minister warned. The original biodiversity is therefore threatened.

The hippos can pollute the soil and water, unbalance the ecosystem and endanger local residents. Many people have gotten used to the animals and even use them for tourism. However, the risk of an attack remains. “You have to be very careful,” says biologist David Echeverri from the Cornare regional environmental office. Even though they seem like a calm species, they are actually unpredictable. Their weight can even cause boats to capsize.

Sterilization alone is not enough

One way to slow their spread will be sterilization, although according to the Ministry of the Environment this is a “complex and expensive process”. “There is a risk that the animals will die, that they will have an allergic reaction to the anesthesia or that the human team on site will be endangered,” said the Environment Minister. The sterilization of a hippopotamus costs an average of 40 million pesos (around 9,000 euros). The government wants to sterilize 20 animals by the end of the year - after that it should increase to 40 per year.

But sterilization alone will not be a sufficient strategy. That's why resettlements are also part of the plan. Discussions are currently underway with Mexico, India and the Philippines. India has already specifically offered to take in 60 animals. In addition, a plan is to be developed as to how the animals can be euthanized under moral aspects - the Ministry of the Environment is working on a so-called ethical euthanasia protocol. The minister has not yet given any details.

Solutions from the past

There have been various attempts in the past to bring the population under control. "There is no measure that would be effective enough to guarantee that they stop multiplying," says Echeverri. Simply shooting the animals, which researchers have already recommended, is out of the question for the state of Antioquia and other animal-loving Colombians. When "Pepe", a stray hippopotamus, was shot in 2009 on the instructions of the Ministry of the Environment and soldiers posed with the killed animal, there was great outrage in Colombia.

Sending the hippos to Africa could do more harm than good. "When we move animals or plants from one place to another, we also transport their pathogens, their bacteria and viruses," says biology professor María Ángela Echeverry from Javeriana University in Bogotá. "We could bring new diseases to Africa."

"Race against time"

The country has been waiting for a plan to address this problem for a long time. "None of the three measures is effective on its own, but it is important that they are carried out simultaneously," said the Environment Minister. "We're in a race against time here."

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