In 1981, one of the most notorious drug lords ever, Pablo Escobar imported four hippos from Africa to his estate near Medellín, Colombia.
After his death in 1993, the authorities seized his Luxury estate Hacienda Napoles, 250km North-west of Colombia’s capital, Bogota and that saw the rise of the so-called “cocaine hippos”
The animals found in his luxury estate were distributed to zoos across Colombia, but not the hippos. It was logistically difficult or rather impossible to move them around, so the authorities just left them there, probably thinking the hippos would die.
Instead, the herd thrived and meandered into the nearby Magdalena River. Over the years, these hippos have invaded Colombia’s waterways and are estimated to range from 100 to 200 animals and those numbers are projected to surpass 1350 hippos by 2030 if not contained. At the moment, their numbers are the biggest outside their native home, Africa.
Pablo Escobar, the Medellin Drugs Cartel kingpin may have been responsible for kidnappings, bombings, and indiscriminate assassinations but he is also responsible for what ecologists call an ecological time-bomb.
With no natural predators in the Colombian waterways, the hippos have only increased as they reproduce more easily.
Scientists have envisaged an ideal scenario of containing the hippos whereby about 40 of them need to be castrated or culled annually but it’s proving to be a hard task as the hippos are spread more than 370kms from Medellin, making it logistically hard to effectively contain them.
Ecologists believe the hippos could affect the local ecosystem in a number of ways: from displacing native species already under threat of extinction, like the manatee, to altering the chemical compositions of waterways, which could endanger fisheries.
Hippos expel waste while wading, and their poop provides a feast for aquatic microorganisms and in turn a boost for the fish that eat them. But invasive animals never come without complications; waste can also prompt algae blooms that drop oxygen levels, killing aquatic en masse.
Hippos are also dangerous, and they frequently appear on lists of the world’s deadliest animals. In 2018 the BBC reported that their attacks kill at least 600 people a year in Africa.
By spreading across Colombia’s biggest river basin, the hippos endanger the lives of thousands of people who make a living from the river, though no fatalities have been reported so far. So what is stopping the Colombian authorities from taking more drastic action, you ask? The precise answer: swaying public opinion.
Back in 2009 when the Colombian Army soldiers gunned down a hippo called Pepe after it was deemed a threat to the local community, there was a massive public outcry and it was enough to make hippos legally protected, which is a big obstacle to any plans to cull them. If not perfectly controlled, Colombia stares at an impending biodiversity catastrophe as it