Colombia’s ‘cocaine hippos’ are being relocated after the local government conceded that efforts to control their population have been exhausted. Seventy African hippos will be moved to Ostok Sanctuary in Mexico and an unnamed park in India following their capture.
As destructive as the Medellin cocaine kingpin, Pablo Escobar, who first imported them, the Hippos similarly proved to be a constant headache for Colombian authorities.
Escobar brought the animals to Colombia to serve as the showpieces of his private menagerie. Four hippopotamuses—alongside zebras, giraffes and flamingos—wowed guests at Escobar's luxurious Hacienda Nápoles estate.
When Escobar was gunned down by Colombian special forces in 1993, the animals were relocated to various sanctuaries across the Americas-all, except for the hippopotamuses.
Too expensive to move, the animals were freed and left to become feral. Initially, they remained around Hacienda Nápoles and their relatively small numbers proved a delight for local tourists.
Locals' outlook changed drastically when in 2006 the hippos gained access to the nearby Magdelena River system in Rancho Grande. The region’s hot, humid marshlands boast a limitless supply of year-round vegetation and a complete lack of predators—a veritable hippo havana.
The Magdalena River’s optimal climatic conditions had seen the population reach 100 animals by 2021. If the animals spread further into greater Antioquia, within which the Magdelena River runs, the population could reach 400 in as little as eight years.
Highly territorial, aggressive to humans and weighing more than the average car, the critical mass of hippos were declared an invasive species the same year.
As early as 2009 local authorities had tried to contain the animal's spread, a hippo shot dead after it entered a populated area. Authorities were forced to change tack after Colombians were outraged after the hippo, colloquially named ‘Pepe’, gruesome remains were published on national television.
Non-lethal efforts implemented after the hippo killing controversy also proved extremely difficult. Nocturnal feeders, government-sponsored sterilisation teams must wait for the hippos to emerge for their nightly feed to complete operations.
Hippos' unique biology creates further problems as, unlike most mammals, male hippos’ scrotums reside inside their body and their penis retract when not in use. The invasive operations required to access their genitalia demand high quantities of sedatives, endangering the animals should the team’s tranquilliser dart even break the hippos’ 6 cm thick skin.
Gina Paola Serna, one of the biologists tasked with tracking the animals in the swampy Colombian interior, spoke of the uphill struggle to control the hippo population.
“These are massive and territorial animals, so everything is complicated when it comes to working with them.”
After studies estimated that the hippos, who can eat 40 kg of grass per night, could reach a population of 1,400 by 2034, the Colombian government conceded that it had exhausted its management options.
Ostok Sanctuary in Mexico has agreed to take 10 hippos, with an unnamed Indian sanctuary agreeing to take 60 more.
Authorities hope that the removal of such a large number of hippos will temporarily destabilise the population, and future castration efforts will have a greater impact on the existing population. Should the relocation plan fail, the Colombian government may return to previously unpopular methods of euthanization; such is the hippos impact.
Edited by: Alanna Fullerton
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