They were two female hippos and a male when drug lord Pablo Escobar brought them to Colombia on a private plane to Rionegro Airport and transferred them to Hacienda Napoles. That happened in the 1980s. Four decades later, this criminal version of Noah’s Ark is a burdensome social and ecological problem for Colombia. An invasive and endangered species known as Escobar’s hippopotamus, the Magdalena River Basin, which connects the six departments, now has about 160 animals breeding freely.
The legacy left behind by a drug trafficker goes beyond criminality and has environmental and social consequences that can worsen over the years. For years, the country has debated whether to euthanize or kill hippos, as they continue to cause havoc and accidents to humans. Governments have taken all sorts of approaches to allowing them to reproduce, from inactivity, to chemical castration or poaching, as in the case of Pepe, the famous hippopotamus killed in 2009 – releasing them through river basins. Now, a new solution has been proposed that brings back the cinematic and Titanic-like sounds of that time in the 80s.
Officials in Antioquia announced that they are trying to transfer at least 70 hippos to India and Mexico, and that they are working on agreements with Ecuador, the Philippines and Botswana, which want some of them. 60 will be taken to Green’s Zoological Rescue and Rehabilitation Kingdom in Gujarat (India) and another 10 to Culiacan (Mexico) Estoc Sanctuary.
But the news has raised many questions. Who pays? How is such an exchange made with an animal weighing a ton? How do they avoid transferring the reproductive problem to those countries? From the Antioquia government they explain that they have all the logistics ready, although they still don’t have the authorization from the government of Gustavo Pedro.
The history of this substitution arose a year and a half ago from the hand of Ernesto Zazueta, the president of Ostoc, and covers three countries: Mexico, India and Argentina, the latter because a producer from there will document the exchange. The government says funds will be used to fund the production of the Impossible Loads project, which will pay for the boxes that the hippos need to be locked in for their journeys. Zazueta is also a liaison with India and has promised to get 10 in his Mexican sanctuary.
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As the approval of the Ministry of Environment is yet to be received, this news is now an announcement. Lina Marcela Rios, animal protection manager at the Antioquia governor’s office, says they are making progress. The official also assures that once the license is obtained, the entire process will take two months. But biologists and experts who have studied hippos extensively in the country say it is more complicated and slower than the regional government says.
In a conversation with EL PAÍS, Ríos explains, “The most expensive thing is the air transport and the boxes, the money that India puts in. But in front of the already complicated air transport, there is animal capture. The carrot that Colombia does, Ríos says, will be triggered at night. “National and local government,” He says, the work will cost 600 million pesos, which includes human resources. However, the animals are not sterilized. “Birth control and restrictive procedures should be considered by the target countries, they are very expensive. We cannot sterilize.
Taking them abroad is a regional move that doesn’t solve the problem that spreads to other sectors, says Natalie Castelblanco, doctor of environment and sustainable development. In 2021 he conducted a scientific study Published in the magazine Biosecurity It maintains that by 2034 the number of hippos in Colombia could exceed 1,400 specimens. Now he thinks that’s a conservative estimate, he adds, adding that “the reproductive rate is 15% and 48% are cubs and juveniles, according to recent analyses.”
The research, which has drawn the ire of the animal movement, notes that “in the absence of severe extirpation or hunting pressure, population sizes tend to increase steadily.” They’ve called her a cautionary tale, but she feels it’s necessary to keep insisting. “If the problem is not addressed now and government inaction continues, development and threats to wetlands and people will continue,” he says. Hippos can lead to the destruction of local ecosystems, where they can move and cause irreversible changes in vegetation, notes Rafael Moreno, a doctor of science, ecology and evolutionary biology.
Effects on ecosystems are one of the edges of the problem; Another is the impact on people. In Africa, 500 deaths by hippos are recorded every year. In Colombia, despite the growth of this population and the fact that these are invasive and territorial animals, considered the most endangered on the planet, there is luck. All the experts who followed the progress of the problem are waiting for the environment ministry to issue a report on the matter.
There have been three accidents involving humans in recent years. In one of them, the person received a bite and had mental health problems; In another the victim was assaulted by a man and woman who wanted to steal a calf to sell; And the most famous is a road accident. The hippopotamus is the third largest land animal and weighs up to three tons, so encountering one can be dangerous.
Most of the inhabitants of Doradel (Antioquia) are aware of the dangers of encountering these animals, but have an ambiguous relationship with them in the region. They love, adore and fear them. Many have earned income through tourism. Hippos have become a mythical figure that reminds us of the permanent and dire presence of drug trafficking.
However, as David Echeverri, head of the Office of Diversity Management of the Regional Environmental Protection Agency, Cornaire, confirms, people “don’t measure” the bad effects of these animals. “Because there have been no deaths, people continue to have a positive opinion of hippos and don’t push for drastic measures. But if there is a fatal accident, that will change,” warns the man, who has been catching and sterilizing hippos in Antigovia for 10 years.
Health sacrifice or euthanasia of these animals is not out of the equation. Although the debate was strong with the animal movement represented in Congress. The polarization reached its peak in 2009 when the herd’s first hippo, Pepe, was killed. He was killed by German hunters with the army. A photo of the group with the animal’s carcass as a trophy created rejection and brought to mind Escobar’s death on a rooftop in Medellin.
It cannot be a basic solution
Relocation abroad cannot be the only way to deal with the problem, nor can it be presented as a panacea, insist experts Castblanco and Echeverri. “This is not a fundamental solution, but it will help reduce the problem. Transferring them to zoos with management assurance has been raised as a possibility and an alternative to castration and sterilisation,” says a Gourner official.
Moreno, who has conducted research on the effects between hippos and humans for the Humboldt Institute, agrees. “It all adds up, but I doubt we can move that number of animals under conditions that respect international operations,” he says. He clarifies that hippos must be surgically castrated. “They can’t take that time bomb to Mexico and Gujarat.”
In recent years, Carnare has sterilized 13 hippos and relocated five to zoos across the country. But they know that capturing 70 people and putting them in a pen is unprecedented. “It is the 80th population group in the region. Not easy; It is not impossible,” he adds. Of course, it won’t be so easy with the hippos that have advanced through the Magdalena River.
That’s why Environment Minister Susana Muhamad needs to come up with a national plan to address the problem, says Castelblanco. “This is no longer just for Antioquia, but a national problem. The issue of hippos got out of hand a while ago,” he says, adding that going abroad alleviates the problem, but does not solve it. Forty years after Escobar kidnapped these animals, Colombia still doesn’t know what to do to stop them. Like drug trafficking, they continue to reproduce.
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