Colombia: Escobar’s hippos declared “invasive”, the hunt soon open?

After months of hesitation and procrastination, the Colombian authorities have finally declared the famous hippos of the late narco Pablo Escobar an “invasive species”, now clearly considering the “necessary option” of culling them.

After a meeting of a specialized Committee, “it was decided, on the basis of technical and scientific studies, to include the hippopotamus in the list of invasive species”, announced Friday the Ministry of the Environment.

The study, carried out by the Alexander von Humboldt Institute and the National University’s Institute of Natural Sciences, “revealed the environmental risks of hippopotamus invasion in major ecosystems, with possible impact on native species of Colombia”.

This is a first step before “defining concrete actions concerning the situation of the species in the country”, warned the ministry.

The drug baron Pablo Escobar left Colombia this cumbersome and very unexpected legacy: hippopotamuses which, almost thirty years after his fall, roam freely in the waters of the Magdalena River.

This colony of more than a hundred animals is today reputed to be the largest of these animals outside of Africa. She is the direct descendant of a couple imported by Escobar, at the height of his glory, for the zoo of his hacienda in Naples, a hundred kilometers south of Medellin.

When Escobar died in 1993 by the security forces, the animals were left to their fate, while the huge villa was also abandoned.

Flamingos, giraffes, zebras and other kangaroos from the pet store had been sold to zoos. Left in place, without predators, the pachyderms have multiplied, becoming an attraction for the world’s media, but above all an environmental problem and a threat to the inhabitants of this mountainous and tropical region.

According to estimates, the invasive colony could quadruple within ten years.

“One thing that Colombia cannot allow is for this species to develop on its territory,” Manuel Rodriguez, former Colombian environment minister (1994-1997), told AFP.

Although the authorities’ plan was not disclosed, Mr. Rodriguez took part in its design. He explains that he asked the executive to use “all measures” to stop the expansion of the behemoths, “including hunting”.

For ten years, scientists from Cornare, a regional state environmental protection agency, have been carrying out a program to sterilize these hippopotamuses.

To date, they have succeeded in surgically sterilizing about ten individuals, and 40 others with medication.

But “everything concerning hippos is complex, expensive and dangerous”, summarizes David Echeverri, head of Cornare. And despite their efforts to capture, sedate and castrate these animals that can weigh up to almost two tons, their population continues to grow. “For an operation carried out, ten animals are born”, deplores Mr. Echeverri.

The drug GonaCon, delivered using darts, makes it easier, but it’s still expensive (about $1,000 per individual) and Cornare is currently out of doses.

“The slaughter remains on the table. It is a necessary option (…) it could be the last way out so as not to let the problem get worse, ”says this specialist.

The invasion of hippos in the hot region of Magdalena Medio is an “unprecedented” and “dangerous” problem, adds former minister Rodriguez.

It is the only invasive species of this size in the world, he warns, judging that fishermen and villagers in the surrounding area are “in danger”. Two attacks have been recorded so far, which fortunately only resulted in injuries.

Beneath its peaceful and peaceful appearance, the imposing quadruped can turn out to be particularly aggressive and violent. Fatal attacks are common in Africa, where it is responsible for hundreds of deaths each year, far ahead of felines, crocodiles or elephants.

The manatee, a huge gentle herbivore that swam freely in the Magdalena Medio basin until the arrival of its African competitor, is also threatened, as are several native fish species, he adds.

At the beginning of the year, an animal rights activist and candidate for the legislative elections next March, Luis Domingo Gomez, proposed to create a “sanctuary” for these hippos, financed by public and private funds.

But experts agree that this proposal is costly and ultimately harmful to the ecosystem.

“Are we going to maintain a sanctuary for hippos that threatens the manatee?” Criticizes Mr. Rodriguez.

“Endogenous species have conservation priority over invasive species,” said manatee biologist Nataly Castelblanco “without hesitation” in a recent tweet.

Leave a Comment