Colombia. A beautiful country full of natural wonders, forests, exotic birds, and... hippos? Yes, hippos, the ones from Africa. No joke—the country is facing a huge hippo problem.
The hippopotamuses in Colombia are the biggest hippo population outside of Africa. Different estimates point to something between 90 and 180 animals, but there are still doubts about the real number.
“What worries me more about this is that the population has continued to grow exponentially,” German Jimenez, a professor of biology at the Javeriana University, in Bogotá, Colombia, told DW.
So, what is going on over there?
Pablo Escobar, cocaine, and hippos
Pablo Escobar, the infamous drug lord, terrorised Colombia during the 1980s and early 1990s and left behind thousands of deaths.
In the 80s, Escobar smuggled four hippos that he had gotten from a wildlife park in Dallas, Texas, into his new exotic zoo east of Medellín. They became part of his massive 2,000-hectare Hacienda Napoles ranch in Puerto Triunfo, Colombia. Napoles had a Spanish colonial house, a landing stripe, many artificial lakes, roads, and even its own gas station.
And hippos were not the only animals to live there. Escobar wanted a truly exotic wildlife park, so he also brought rhinos, elephants, giraffes, ostriches, and many more animals. “My own Noah’s Ark,” he called it.
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In 1993, Colombian security forces shot and killed Escobar in Medellín. After his death, many of the exotic animals went to other zoos or parks, but the hippos stayed—and eventually escaped, to a place where they probably felt quite at home.
The Hacienda Napoles, which is now a state-owned theme park, is very close to the Magdalena River, a major artery for the country, and the river basin shares similarities with the hippos’ native ecosystem in various African countries.
A perfect place for hippos
The Magdalena River basin proved to be the perfect place for the hippos to breed and, with a lack of government action, their population grew fast. “Colombia had the opportunity to [control their population] but failed and let the problem grow,” Jimenez said.
The hippos In Colombia have no competitors and no predators. They enjoy steadier weather and water levels compared to Africa, where intense droughts act as population control. Basically, the animals can eat and mate all year round in Colombia.
But in Africa, the hippos’ numbers have dropped sharply since the 1970s, and in 2016, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) listed them as “vulnerable”, the last classification before “endangered”.
There are now seven identified hippo population groups along the Magdalena basin, according to a new report by the Colombian Humboldt Institute and the Natural Science Institute, commissioned by the Colombian Ministry of Environment.
“They can start reproducing really young. They can have calves very frequently, like once or more a year. And they can reproduce for a very long time, 50 years, almost to the end of their life span,” Amanda Subalusky, a professor of biology at the University of Florida, told DW.
Subalusky and Jimenez worked together on a study published in April in the journal Scientific Reports. In it, they stressed the urgency of the issue and examined potential solutions as well as their costs.
Hippos: a love/hate relationship
But what is the problem with Colombia’s hippos? Could we not just leave them be?
“They’re reproducing and growing very fast and relatively soon there’s going to be a whole lot of hippos,” said Subalusky.
The problem with invasive species is that they can seriously affect wildlife, the ecosystem, the landscape, and also the people of their new home. Hippos are very territorial and can be very aggressive. In fact, they are well known in Africa for being one of the deadliest animals, with estimates saying they kill around 500 people every year.
Although no one has been killed by hippos in Colombia to date, there have been incidents of attacks and vehicles crashing with them. The low population density, according to scientists, is likely the reason for the low number of attacks.
Hippos are a concern for farmers as well because they can destroy fences, consume crops and grass, and sometimes even run over cattle calves.
But the animals are also a way to make a living for some communities that live around Napoles. “They defend them [hippos] a lot,” said Jimenez. But the further away from the Hacienda you go, the more people are afraid of the African animals, he added.
A huge environmental problem
Then there is the environmental aspect. Hippos eat around 50 kg (110 pounds) of plants a day. That is a heavy toll on the local vegetation, which has never experienced such a level of herbivory before. “They are strongly affecting the ecosystems of the Middle Magdalena,” said Jimenez.
The animals’ heavy weight can change the landscape as they walk around. And because hippos are so big and eat so much, well, they also poop a lot. Since so much dung ends up in rivers, the extra nutrients it releases into the water can lead to algae blooms. This can deplete the water’s oxygen content, which is essential for fish survival.
Hippos are what scientists refer to as ecosystem engineers because of how drastically they can alter the landscape. Like beavers in the forests of North America, these engineers play a vital role in many ecosystems. But they can wreak havoc in a foreign environment. “They [the hippos] must be removed from the basin,” said Jimenez.
The hippo problem involves society and laws
The fact that not everyone agrees with that became clear in 2009, when the government ordered to kill a hippo called Pepe that was posing a threat to locals. Pepe’s death sparked a public outcry, and in 2012 a law was passed making it illegal to kill hippos.
Only subsistence hunting, or hunting for food in communities that rely on it, is permitted in Colombia, explained Jimenez. Since Pepe, government authorities have been trying, unsuccessfully, to limit hippos’ numbers by chemically sterilising them or castrating them. This is a hard task given their immense size, aggression, and internal testicles.
“This process entails hippos being captured, anesthetised, transported by helicopter, and surgically operated upon; thus, it is very challenging and can be dangerous for both the people and hippos involved,” according to Subalusky and Jimenez’s study.
Only in 2022, the Colombian government passed a new law declaring hippos an invasive species. The law is now being contested by pro-animal-rights groups for contradicting previous laws protecting hippos. There is also been discussions about flying hippos to other countries.
It is a complex problem with environmental, scientific, social, legal, and ethical angles to be taken into account. “You’ll never make everybody happy,” said Subalusky.
So what can be done about the hippos?
If no action is taken, hippo numbers in Colombia could grow to more than 1,000 by 2035, recent estimates suggest.
Subalusky and Jimenez’s study says that all hippos need to go, stating that with the current legal situation, the most cost-effective option would be to continue male sterilisation. They estimated the costs between 0.85 and 1.4 million USD, but eradication would take at least 45 years.
However, the researchers showed that using veterinary-assisted euthanasia would be the most effective and fastest solution. They estimate that the whole hippo population could be euthanised in a single year for around 0.61 million USD.
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The plan of action that the Humboldt Institute and the National Science Institute sent the government suggests both social measures and direct interventions. Informing local communities about the hippos’ biology is among the social measures, as are education and collaboration with the people on how to live alongside the hippos and lessen the animals’ impact.
The interventions proposed included relocating the hippos to other places, like zoos or wildlife reserves in and outside the country, to keep them in constrained areas, or culling them.
Based on this report, the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development published on April 14 a press release informing that they are “working on the management plan to be adopted for this species in the country”.
Scientists agree that the growth rate of hippos is worrying and that the longer the Colombian government waits, the harder it is going to be to control them. This could have serious consequences for the Magdalena River basin and for the people living there.