Up to 100 hippopotamuses, all descended from four animals illegally imported into Colombia by the cocaine smuggler Pablo Escobar in the late 1980s, are menacing Colombia’s marshlands and river systems.
Scientists told The Daily Telegraph that the country must now must cull the aggressive “cocaine hippos” that roam the Magdalena river basin, as they are breeding voraciously in the country’s wet and warm climate. In their natural African habitat, hippos have to contend with a long dry season.
Escobar, who was said to be worth a staggering $25 billion at his height, making him the seventh richest man in the world, was known for buying lavish gifts, and boasted about literally burning money on occasion to keep his family warm.
In 2020, a nephew found a plastic bag with $18m hidden in the wall of one of his old houses.
His zoo, complete with elephants and hippopotamuses was just one more indulgence.
When he was shot dead in 1993, the Colombian government took control of his estate, including the animals, most of which were either euthanized or sent to zoos and parks.
Four hippos, however, living in a remote pond, escaped the cull; now there are dozens of them living in the wild. The exact number is unknown but the Telegraph puts the number at between 80 and 100, which it says makes them the largest invasive species on the planet. Their numbers will swell to almost 1,500 by 2040 if they are not controlled.
“Nobody likes the idea of shooting a hippo, but we have to accept that no other strategy is going to work,” ecologist Nataly Castelblanco-Martínez told The Telegraph.
The hippos have become a local tourist attraction; paying visitors can tour Escobar’s former mansion and visit the lake where several dozen hippos now live.
But researchers say the hippos are competing with native wildlife and polluting local waterways with their toxic urine and feces.
Hippos are famously aggressive and kill more people annually than any other African mammal. Last year, a Colombian cattle farmer was bitten by a hippo and thrown into the air, breaking his leg, hip and several ribs.
One other mooted method of controlling the hippos, sterilization, has been unsuccessful—owing to the fact that male hippos have retractable testes.
David Echeverri Lopez, a government environmentalist, told The Telegraph that he is able to castrate roughly one hippo per year, whereas scientists estimate that the population grows by 10 percent annually.