Drug Lord Gone, Hippos Take Over in Colombia

The song “I Want A Hippopotamus For Christmas” hit it big in 1953. While such a gift is a pipe dream for American kids, children in Colombia might well be able to get one–and not just on Christmas. Yes, the big “river horses” are flourishing in the South American country better known for drugs and drug lords than for African animals. But these hippos are causing headaches there as a non-native invasive species. How in the world did that occur? Blame a drug lord.

Quick. Name a South American drug lord. The one that pops into my mind, known to me only from reading the newspapers mind you, is Pablo Escobar. Certainly you’ve heard of him too. This Columbian drug lord, called “the king of cocaine,” is the wealthiest criminal in history. The founder and leader of the Medellin Cartel, Escobar boasted a net worth of some $30 billion (that’s billion with a “b”) before he died.

What’s a filthy rich narcoterrorist to do with all that dirty money? Well, Escobar decided that he wanted his own personal zoo. Among other exotic animals such as elephants and giraffes, the king of cocaine imported hippos, three males and one female, to Colombia in the 1980’s. To be precise, he ILLEGALLY imported these hippos. Surprise, surprise! (Not.) Home, sweet home for these African animals was Escobar’s sprawling estate, Hacienda Napoles.

While the hippos thrived at their new home, things didn’t go to well for Escobar. He was killed by the Colombian National Police in 1993. While the rest of the animals were thereafter removed from Escobar’s zoo by the government, the hippos were left to fend for themselves. Why? They were deemed to difficult to seize and move.

The hippos didn’t care about the lack of human care. Their population has boomed from four at the outset to 130 now; that figure is expected to reach 400 in eight years. It the population is left unchecked, it is expected to swell into the thousands over the next several decades. Yikes!

So, the big beasts are doing well. What’s the problem? If they are not actively controlled, the risks to the personal safety of residents and to Colombia’s biodiversity are high.

While they may not look as scary as a lion, hippos are extremely dangerous. They are highly aggressive and unpredictable in nature. In Africa, hippos attack and kill over 500 people a year. It is believed that they are responsible for more human deaths annually than lions, hyenas, and crocodiles combined.

These semiaquatic animals, who are now scattered along the Magdelena River, are very territorial and have been frequently reported to charge and attack boats. And when a HUMONGOUS animal (males average ~3,310 lbs. and females average ~2,870 lbs.) comes charging, your life is in peril. Three attacks on the civilian population have been reported in Colombia.

Like the man who imported the original four hippos, these “river horses” (what the root Greek word from which hippopotamus was derived means) have an attitude. When they decide to get out of the river and go for a stroll, they walk down the streets of the city like they own the place. Would YOU challenge them?

In addition to being bad for humans, the hippos are a threat to the environment. First, they negatively affect agriculture. Mainly herbivores, hippos damage crops by seeking food in large quantities at night. Additionally, hippo waste negatively affects oxygen levels in water bodies which can impact fish and ultimately humans. Their feces change the composition of the rivers and could disturb the habitats of manatees and capybaras. I feel for the manatees, but I have mixed emotions about the capybaras who are the largest rodents on earth.

Protecting biodiversity is a huge concern to the Colombian government. It is one of only 17 “megadiverse” countries having a high number of unique species. Seeing the hippos as a threat to biodiversity led to the government’s designation of this animal as an “exotic invasive species.” Concerning is the fact that the hippo has no natural predator, disease, or competitor in the environmentally friendly area they inhabit in the Colombian Magdelena River basin.

While the need to control the hippo population is recognized, no good answer has been reached as to how to do so. Surgical castration is one option, but that method poses obstacles. First, this process is extremely expensive. A wild male hippo was caught, castrated, and released, but that effort cost $50,000. Second, it is difficult to determine whether a hippo is a male who can be castrated since the animal’s genitalia is internal. Third, the process is challenging because a hippo must be sedated and supported before an attempt can be made to cut through its thick skin for sterilization. (Very sharp scalpel, please!)

How about hippo birth control? Well, I don’t think anyone wants to attempt to get this massive animal to swallow a birth control pill. Instead, birth control is administered through darts laden with the contraceptive drug GonaCon. The downside? You must be close enough to a hippo to shoot it with a contraceptive dart.

While I know little about hippos and their birth control needs, I do have some creative ideas for dealing with Colombia’s invasive species. Since a drug lord is responsible for the situation the South American country’s in by illegally bringing river horses into it, perhaps the drug dealers should be tasked with cleaning up the mess. Instead of confining convicted drug dealers to jail, why not sentence them to time in the field shooting birth control darts at charging hippos rather than shooting bullets at innocent civilians and police officers doing their sworn duty? Sounds like a plan to me!

WONDER-ing Woman:

Had you any idea that hippos could be found in South America? Given the results of this non-native species’ importation into Colombia, do you now understand why there would be a ban on importing them? Between a lion, hyena, crocodile, and a hippo, which one would you most fear facing?

America’s Most Wanted — A Murder Hornet

In 2020, there are some things we don’t want to catch, COVID-19 for example. Authorities, though, really want to catch a murder hornet right now. Personally, I don’t want to catch either, but the government’s  desperately seeking a live version of the giant pest. Why is the murder hornet #1 on their wanted list? Let’s check out the buzz on this intriguing story.

A murder hornet is the world’s largest species of hornet. Typically it is about 2 inches in length. If you have difficulty envisioning this size insect, just look at your thumb. Murder hornets are the size of an average thumb. YIKES!

Baseball and apple pie may be American, but murder hornets are not. If you hadn’t heard of them until this year, there’s a good reason; these pests aren’t native to the U.S. Also known as the Asian Giant Hornet, this bug is originally from an area stretching from northern India to East Asia. So what are murder hornets doing here in the U.S.A.? Apparently they are adventuresome things and decided to catch a ride on some cargo, likely agricultural, bound for overseas. 

Americans on the West Coast need to be warned that the murder hornets (and not the British) are coming. The hornets  invaded Washington State in December 2019 after first being spotted in Canada in August. Government authorities are hot on the bugs’ trail and, after a mere seven months, were final able to capture one on July 14th in Whatcom County, Washington. (In all honesty, I’d never heard of Whatcom County OR murder hornets until just recently.) The massive hornet’s capture was aided by the fact the bug was dead, so he had little chance of escaping. 

The government’s goal is to catch a live murder hornet. Isn’t a dead hornet as good (or perhaps better) than a live one? Nope. The plan is to catch live hornets, tag them (with presumably a bug-sized tag), and track them back to their colony. Once the colony is located, it can be eradicated. And time is running out for this eradication. It is less than two months before murder hornet mating season begins; in mid-September queens will mate with male hornets to produce little Asian Giant Hornets. Destroying nests is the only way to prevent the spread of the invasive pest. 

Is this destruction really necessary? I mean how bad can a 2 inch bug be? The answer? MURDEROUS. In Japan, Asian Giant Hornets kill up to fifty people per year. Typical beekeeping clothing is not sufficient to protect individuals from their stings; the hornets’ stingers can also pierce denim jeans. On the bright side, murder hornets don’t generally attack people or pets; however, if they feel threatened, they may go into attack mode. Their potent venom can be toxic if multiple stings are inflicted. Oh, death, where is thy sting? For murder hornets, it’s in their 1/4″ stinger.

The name “murder hornets” comes from the insects’ barbaric behavior towards other insects. These beastly hornets go through a “slaughter phase” from late summer to early fall when they attack beehives. Adult honeybees are decapitated while larvae and pupae are eaten. A hive may be totally destroyed by such an attack in a matter of a few hours. 

OK, that’s not very nice to treat the honeybees so savagely, but why should we humans be up in arms about it and seek to do in the murder hornets? The loss of honeybees will negatively affect humans as a good percentage of our food supply depends on insect pollination; bees do a majority of that work. In fact, in Washington State, one-third of the food supply depends on such pollination. So if you wondered what a bee is so busy doing, now you know. They are pollinating plants so our food will grow.

Now that we understand why murder hornets are really bad guys (er, bugs) and should be on the most wanted list, we need to know what to be on the lookout for. As yet, no murder hornet wanted posters have been displayed in U.S. postal facilities. Thus, a mug shot (bug shot?) of the winged wanted one is provided as a public service at the top of this post.

If you don’t expect to come face to face with a murder hornet, a physical description of one is good to have. In addition to being about 2″ long, these pests have large yellow and orange heads with prominent eyes (all the better to see their victims with presumably), and sharp serrated jaws. Adults sport a “wasp waist” between their thorax and fashionably striped abdomen. .

Helpful as knowing the description of American’s most wanted hornet may be, I don’t intend to get close enough to a hornet, murder or otherwise, to see if its abdomen is striped. But if an alert citizen does spot a murder hornet, that sighting should be reported. Who ya gonna call? Not ghost busters or even hornet busters. You don’t even really call anyone. If you live in Washington State, simply go online to the Washington State Department of Agriculture website to complete a Hornet Watch Report Form  You can advise you spied with your little eye a murder hornet flying by.

Government authorities are working diligently to capture a live murder hornet. How do you trap a murder hornet? So far, the tactic has been to set bottle traps out to attract them. Mice like cheese (hence you put cheese in a mouse trap), but the murder hornet’s have taken a shine to a mixed drink composed of OJ and rice cooking wine. This delicious drink (to hornets) is placed in the bottle to lure them in. Over 40 such bottle traps have been set in the immediate area where the (dead) murder hornet was captured back on July 14th; over 1,000 traps in total are currently in the field.

What happens if a live murder hornet is trapped? I’m no scientist, but I’m guessing the bug will be mad as a hornet. No worries because scientists plan to help the captive chillax in a cooler full of ice until the hornet is immobile. At that point a small tracking tag will be glued to the hornet. Not sure if gorilla glue can be used or if pest paste must be obtained for this job. After the tracking tag is secured, the hornet can be revived and released. Scientists will monitor his movements as relayed by the tiny tracking tag. When the pest makes it home to his colony, a raid will be conducted to raze the hornet’s home and wipe out the hornets. 

While I am not fond of insects in general and stinging ones in particular, it does seem sad that murder is the solution to the problem. We have to murder the murder hornets before they murder the helpful honeybees and jeopardize our food supply. Perhaps a better title for this blog post would have been “Murder, She Wrote.”

Just WONDER-ing:

If you spied a hornet, would you stop and take the time to assess its length before moving away from it? Is the murder hornet’s “slaughter phase” when it savagely kills honeybees just a part of the circle of life? Were you aware that we have the technology in place to track insects?

 

 

 

 

 

Floridians Face A Real Jungle Out There

In the abstract, living in Florida is a paradise with warm weather, beautiful beaches, and Disneyworld. In reality, living in Florida can be a jungle. No, I’m not referring to the concrete jungle caused by overdevelopment. I’m talking about a real life jungle complete with fanged fauna. Burmese pythons are taking over the Sunshine State! HELP!

Yes, Florida’s a hot spot for tourists. But it’s also a national and global hot spot for non-native, invasive species according to the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. Florida is the point of entry for about 3/4 of the plants imported into the U.S. and the majority of the world reptile trade. Lucky us–we Florida residents get to share our state with a bunch of tourists and over 500 non-native fish, wildlife, and plant species.

As a result of the presence of these many invasive species, all of Florida’s native habitats–marine, freshwater, and land–are now threatened. The invaders are a cause of great concern practically, financially, and environmentally. Hurricane season is limited to a defined period of time during the year, but invasive species are a threat to Floridians year around. Oh, joy!

How do these invaders have a financial impact? According to The Nature Conservancy’s website, the cost of managing Florida’s invasive plants alone is $100 million annually. Let’s consider a certain weed which is taking Florida by storm. No, not THAT weed! The non-native air potato vine is growing like a proverbial weed–but on steroids. The aggressive, noxious weed can add up to 8 incher per DAY and smothers vegetation. It costs big bucks to weed out this weed.

Moving over to the reptile category, green iguanas are the bane of property owners. The big lizards’ presence was first reported in the 1960’s, but their population has mushroomed so that they now infest South Florida. The iguanas are destructive and leave unsanitary droppings behind as a memento.

Rhesus macaque monkeys appear in the non-native invasive animal category. In the 1930’s six of the monkeys were brought to Silver Springs in an effort to attract tourists. These monkeys were placed on an island in Silver River, but SURPRISE!, the monkeys swam away from the island and took up residence in surrounding forests. About 200 of them are estimated to be located in Silver Springs State Park alone. The monkeys are prone to approach and intimidate visitors to the park resulting in some park areas which the monkeys frequent being closed to visitors.

And don’t go into the water! Forget worrying about sharks; swimming about offshore are lionfish. This nonnative species loves to snack on baby reef fish, decimating that population. When they aren’t devouring little fish, lionfish are scaring humans. Their fin spines are highly venomous and have led to human deaths.

Most alarming is the presence of Burmese pythons here in Florida. Snakes alive! These snakes, while native to Southeast Asia, are Florida’s largest invasive species. Their population in the Sunshine State is believe to exceed 100,000. The first Burmese Python found in Florida was spotted in the Everglades in 1979. It was likely a former pet (PET? What idiot has a Burmese Python for a pet?) which was released or escaped into the wild, making the wild even wilder.

Burmese Pythons are wreaking havoc on the environment because they eat endangered species and disrupt natural food chains. Usually they live near water, and scientists report that these snakes have eliminated 99% of the native mammals in the Everglades. Burmese Pythons can eat adult deer and gators up to six feet. Their only predators are (armed) humans and very large gators.

Tens of thousands of Burmese Pythons (yes, that means a figure with FOUR zeroes) inhabit the mainland around Everglades National Park. (Note to self: Do NOT plan any trip to the Everglades in the near future.) The population is likely to be increasing since it is currently Burmese Python mating season, and each adult female lays between 60-100 eggs per year. No one will think those are cute babies other than the momma python.

Clearly, Burmese Pythons must be eliminated, but how? Nature Conservancy Florida launched a Python Patrol in the Florida Keys in 2008 and expanded this service to the mainland in 2010. The Python Patrol’s trained responders can safely and humanely (who cares–it’s a big snake!) capture and remove Burmese Pythons. And by remove, I hope they mean permanently remove such as send them to the big snake pit in the sky.

The State of Florida has been paying python hunters to catch and kill Burmese Pythons since March 2017. As a result of this program, around 3,000 such snakes have been “extinguished.” Please tell me that term equates to “exterminated.”

In an effort to raise public awareness of the python problem, the State of Florida, along with the Florida Wildlife Commission and the South Florida Water Management District, is putting on the Florida Python Challenge. The Challenge, held in conjunction with this year’s Super Bowl which will be played in Miami on February 2nd, is also dubbed the 2020 Python Bowl. 550 individuals (among which I am NOT numbered) have registered to participate. What’s the goal? Catch and kill Burmese Pythons!

The Challenge kicked off on January 10, 2020 and will run through January 19th. The hunter who catches the largest snake during that time will win $2,000. While Burmese Pythons can grow to 26′ and over 200 pounds, the average size found in Florida is 8-10 feet. That’s still too big for me! The hunter who catches the most Burmese Pythons in the Challenge wins a Tracker 570 Off Road ATV provided by Bass Pro Shops. Winners will be announced January 25th during the opening of Super Bowl Live. VIP guests will receive python skin footballs. For once, I’m happy NOT to be a VIP guest.

Scary as having these invasive species in our backyards is, maybe we Floridians should capitalize on the situation. Let’s use it to draw tourists! Why should they travel to Asia when they can see Burmese Pythons and Mickey Mouse in the same trip?

Just WONDER-ing:

Were you aware there was such a threat posed to Florida by non-native species? Does awareness of the pervasiveness of Burmese Pythons in the Everglades dissuade you from wanting to travel there? Moving forward, what’s the best way to protect against further non-native invasive species taking a foothold here in Florida?

 

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