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!
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?