Colombia is offering to capture and transport 70 hippos to India and Mexico after a large population of African species was allowed to proliferate in the river and lakes around the estate of the late Pablo Escobar.
What began as four illegally imported “cocaine hippos,” which were the pets of the cartel’s kingpin, quickly multiplied into a group of 150 in the absence of any natural predators, reports Nature. The Colombian government has largely left the hippos unchecked so far, despite wreaking havoc on the region’s ecology, researchers say.
The cocaine-addicted hippos escaped from Escobar’s Hacienda Napoles ranch after the drug lord was killed by national police in 1993. Since then, the hippos have made their home in the nearby Magdalena River watershed and beyond. beyond, where they could proliferate to 1,500 in 16 years, according to Modeling 2021.
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Escobar’s Hacienda Napoles – and the hippos – became a local tourist attraction in the years after the kingpin’s death. But the question of how to solve the hippo problem has pitted some locals against conservationists, some “enamored of the animals’ charisma and value as a tourist attraction and others concerned about the threat they pose to the environment.” environment and local fishing communities”. Nature writes.
Scientists warn that hippos have no natural predators in Colombia and are a potential problem for biodiversity since their droppings alter the composition of rivers and could impact the habitat of manatees and capybaras.
“If we do nothing, in 20 years the problem will not have a solution,” says Nataly Castelblanco Martínez, a Colombian conservation biologist at the Autonomous University of Quintana Roo.
The plan to take them to India and Mexico has been in the works for more than a year, said Lina Marcela de los Ríos Morales, director of animal protection and welfare at Antioquia’s environment ministry.
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The hippos would be lured with food in large iron containers and transferred by truck to the town of Rionegro, 150 kilometers away. From there, they would be flown to India and Mexico, where there are sanctuaries and zoos capable of accommodating and caring for the animals.
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“It’s possible, we already have experience in relocating hippos to zoos across the country,” said David Echeverri López, spokesperson for Cornare, the local environmental authority that would be in charge of the relocations.
The plan is to send 60 hippos to the Greens Zoological Rescue & Rehabilitation Kingdom in Gujarat, India, which De los Ríos Morales said would cover the cost of containers and air transport. Another 10 hippos would go to zoos and sanctuaries in Mexico like the Ostok, located in Sinaloa.
In 2022, the Colombian government declared cocaine hippos a poisonous invasive species, sparking fears among locals that the beloved animals would be put down or sterilized.
At the time, Environment Minister Carlos Eduardo Correa said local communities would be consulted on any plans to control the hippo population.
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Álvaro Molina, 57, a local resident, told The Associated Press that he supports the hippos – despite having been attacked by one in the past. One day, while he was fishing, he felt a movement under his canoe which threw him into the water.
“The female attacked me once,” he said, “because she had just given birth.”
At the time, Molina said he feared the government wanted to harm the hippos. Nature reports that researchers in the country had called for a strict management plan that involved culling some hippos and capturing and relocating others.
Many people interviewed by AP in the area said they get along well with hippos and even oppose neutering them, let alone killing some.
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“They make laws from a distance. We live with the hippos here and we never thought of killing them,” Isabel Romero Jerez, a local conservationist, said in 2022. “The hippos aren’t African anymore; they are Colombians.
Hopefully the current plan to transport about half of the hippos out of South America strikes the right balance for conservationists and locals.
De los Ríos Morales said the relocation would help control the hippo population and that expelling them is a more humane alternative to exterminating them as an invasive species.
— With files from the Associated Press
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