Featured image: Hippos
Sunday, 16 December 2018, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – Pablo Escobar (1949-1993) was the most powerful drug lord ever and the richest criminal in history. His Medellin Cartel supplied 80% of the cocaine smuggled into the United States, and by the time of his death in 1993 his estimated net worth was 25 to 30 billion dollars. Pablo Escobar’s power, wealth, and violence created huge problems for Colombia, but everyone forgets about another problem that he created for the county: hundreds of invasive hippos.
Pablo Escobar is infamous for his enormous empire of cocaine production, as well as the enormous wealth that it generated for him. And Escobar wanted to use that money to build a private zoo in his massive Colombian estate. He imported elephants, giraffes, zebras, and four hippos. When Pablo Escobar was assassinated in 1993, the Colombian government took control of his estate and donated all of the animals to other zoos. Except the four hippos.
We’re not sure why the government decided to leave the hippos alone, but this decision has created a huge problem (actually multiple problems) for the country. Over the past 25 years the original four hippos have now increased to 50+ hippos.
Any invasive species is a problem, but with the hippos this problem is magnified due to their extremely aggressive nature. Hippos have been called the “most ferocious mammal on earth”, and they routinely kill crocodiles, elephants, lions, and especially humans. More people are killed by hippos than by any other wild animal in Africa. A hippo can open its mouth up to four feet, and can easily bite a 10 foot long crocodile in half.
That’s why it’s unfortunate that in Colombia, the hippos are portrayed as friendly, temperamental creatures, and their existence is praised as a positive example of wildlife conservation. The locals agree.
A cute, charismatic hippo ferociously devours a crocodile.
The locals and the Pablo Escobar theme park may glorify the hippos, but if you ask an actual biologist, like David Echeverri of the Colombian Ministry of the Environment, the hippos are not a positive influence. It is important to note that the Pablo Escobar Theme Park is not able to contain or control the hippos. Many of the hippos have left the park premises and settled down in rivers or ponds hundreds of miles from their original location. So the hippos are now a problem throughout all of Colombia, and David and his team are tasked with finding a solution. Finding the right way to deal with a drug lord’s invasive species is no easy feat. Like David says:
“You can’t look this up on the internet. You can’t just search ‘I have a group of hippos outside of their natural habitat, what do I do?’ “
The first problem is that Colombia is basically hippo heaven. In their native Africa, things like droughts and predators limit the growth of the hippo population, but in Colombia, there are no droughts and hippos have no natural predators or competition. Furthermore, the lush, tropical environment of Colombia means that there is an abundant supply of food year round. Thus, hippos have proliferated to an unprecedented degree. They have also become sexually active at an earlier age and are eating more than they would if they were living in Africa. All of this food, water, sex, and freedom have combined to create what is truly, hippo paradise.
The most important problem, however, is that the hippos pose a threat to the human population. Remember from earlier the fact that the Pablo Escobar park cannot control the hippos? Yeah, and because of this, hippos are frequently sighted wandering right through the middle of towns. As one local says, hippos “are not aggressive at all. They’re the mascot of our little town”. The locals do not understand how dangerous the hippos are, and in fact the locals even welcome the hippos.
David and his team have tried to solve the problem with various solutions. First, they tried to contain the hippos with fences and rock walls. This strategy failed miserably as the hippos just jumped over the fences. The barbed wire used on the fences did not harm the hippos and therefore did not deter them from leaving.
Their second strategy was to capture the male hippos and castrate them, to prevent them from reproducing. But this strategy was doomed from the beginning, as tranquilising, capturing, and castrating a hippo is dangerous, difficult, and expensive. And the rate at which the hippos can be castrated is not enough to catch up with the rapidly growing hippo population.
Their third strategy was what is typically used to control invasive species: extermination. Now this strategy would have worked if it wasn’t for the massive public outcry within Colombia when this photo was captured of the extermination team’s first hippo:
The outcry against killing the hippos culminated with a Colombian federal judge ruling that it is illegal to kill hippos. So extermination is off the table.
Their fourth, final, and most likely solution is what was done with the rest of Pablo Escobar’s animals in 1993: donate them.
But until that happens, Pablo Escobar’s estate and the hippos will still make money for the country, and a drug lord’s invasive species will continue to bask in what is truly hippo paradise.