Colombia’s Hippo Conundrum: A Look into the Consequences of Invasive Alien Species (IAS)

by Myrah Alouette C. Alcobilla

The chances of a connection between one of the world’s largest land mammals and one of the most notorious drug lords in history may be low but never zero.

Hippopotamuses in Escobar’s abandoned home in Puerto Triunfo. Photo via STR New/Reuters

A private zoo

During the 80s and into the early days of the 90s, the world knew of a Colombian drug lord and narco-terrorist by the name of Pablo Escobar. However, aside from these heinous crimes, the dubbed “King of Cocaine” also did a crime against nature that has surpassed him well past his death.

Escobar had imported countless of exotic animals from all around the world and added them into his growing collection and very own private zoo. Four amongst all of these were hippos — one male, three female.

After his death in 1994, Escobar’s empire crumbled and his properties were then confiscated by the Colombian government, this especially included his precious private zoo. Hacienda Nápoles — Escobar’s ranch — was reclaimed and the animals were then dispersed throughout different zoos to be taken care of. There was, however, a slight conniption that arose when it came to the hippopotamuses.

Hacienda Nápoles is now a theme park and tourist attraction, including a zoo which houses rare animals. Photo via Flickr/Hacienda Nápoles

Gigantic aliens

See, the hippos weren’t at all native to the land Escobar had brought them to. Hippopotamuses originated from sub-Saharan Africa, and in that rabid land, it was hard to fight for survival, what with other animals — predator and preys alike — coexisting with them in the food chain. There’s a reason, after all, as to why Hippopotamuses have such powerful jaws, packing a lethal force of 2,000 pounds per square inch with a bite that can snap someone in two like a twig if they ever feel threatened.

Colombia, on the other hand, had no natural predators for the lucky four hippos.

In this tropical scene, these mammals not only have no natural predators imperiling them, but it also offers food all year round. Thus, with the tropical country practically being their hippo heaven, the hippos have proven themselves a force to be reckoned with in Escobar’s old turf. Some of the hippos have even been found roaming as far as 370 km from their pond in Hacienda Nápoles, making their way into other rivers and even local villages.

A significant amount of excretions from the hippopotamuses, most especially feces, are chemically altering the bodies of water in Colombia and causing bacterial or algal blooms. Photo via Flickr

This makes Hippopotamuses an Invasive Alien Species (IAS), which means they are species brought from their original geographical habitat to a new environment through human action. In fact, hippos are considered the world’s “largest invasive animal”, bringing about some serious environmental impact to the countries they were brought to, and Escobar’s hippopotamuses definitely have a significant effect in Colombia.

On the loose

The first issue starts with the fact that the hippos themselves are now the threat to the other native animals of the area, displacing even the ones that were already susceptible to extinction in the first place.

Not only are these beasts ferocious enough to kill a crocodile, but they have also gone to change the chemical compositions of the waterways of Colombia, putting fisheries in danger.

“DANGER.” This sign in the Hacienda Nápoles warns people from Escobar’s hippopotamuses and their offspring, now turned feral. Photo via Juancho Torres/Getty Images

Aside from that, the fact that they are now nearing local communities more and more puts the safety of the humans at great risks. Though there haven’t been any causes of severe incidents, it would be obvious that with their brute strength as creatures, hippos pose a great threat. These animals, after all, aren’t as soft and plushy as people expect them to be.

Cull the hippos?

The Colombian government had initially let these hippos be back in 1994, expecting nature to take its own course and get rid of them alone. Alas, it sucks to be wrong. There are now a little over 100 hippos roaming around Colombia.

Carlos Valderrama, a veterinarian and conservationist, says that this is the largest herd outside of their native region, Africa, and scientists predict that, if not stopped soon enough, they would reach over 1,400 by 2034.

With capture and transport being difficult enough, authorities are having a hard time coming up with a solution for this crisis. Their leading answer, however, is culling — a cruel notion, yes, but it is one that has to be done in order to reasonably keep everything under control.

Still, this solution won’t do — not with the majority of the public being vehemently against it so much that they threaten the authorities for proposing such an outrageous idea. This has pushed experts back on their mission to save the balance of Colombia’s ecosystem, forcing them to sit back to look for other resolutions.

Hippos are majestic creatures — big and chunky, adorable even, but it’s clear that the impact they carry isn’t always so good. Till a solution is brought to light, Escobar’s cocaine hippos will wander on.

References

#ARCHIVES: This article was previously published in Hiraya Zine Volume 1, Issue 3: The Environment last May 2021. Download the zine for free here.

This issue is presented in partnership with The Growth Initiative, Wavefarers, and Youth Strike 4 Climate Philippines.

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