independent.ie– Scientists want Colombia to cull its “cocaine hippos” that roam the Magdalena river basin, breeding voraciously and causing an increasing menace.
Colombia’s marshlands have been home to the giant mammals since they were illegally imported in the late Eighties by drug lord Pablo Escobar.
When he was shot dead in 1993, the government took control of his extravagant estate, including his zoo.
Most of the animals were shipped away but four hippos were left to fend for themselves in a pond, and now there are dozens living in the wild.
Estimates put the total between 80 and 100, making them the largest invasive species on the planet. Scientists forecast that will swell to almost 1,500 by 2040.
They conclude that by then, environmental impacts will be irreversible and numbers impossible to control. “Nobody likes the idea of shooting a hippo, but we have to accept no other strategy will work,” ecologist Nataly Castelblanco-Martinez said.
In their natural African habitat, hippos spend the long dry season competing for access to rivers that have shrunk to puddles. They are also vulnerable to disease and predators. In Colombia, it rains regularly and there are no problems with food or predators.
Locals see them as an unofficial mascot. Gift shops in the town of Puerto Triunfo sell hippo souvenirs. And there are warning signs on roads. At the amusement park built on the site of Escobar’s former mansion, visitors can see the lake where several dozen hippos now live.
But they pose an ecological menace, competing with native wildlife and polluting local waterways. Hippos’ waste is toxic and they carry dangerous bacteria which can harm other species, including humans. In Africa, hippos are considered a major threat, killing more people annually than any other African mammal. In Colombia, there are anecdotes of hippos chasing people after unexpected encounters.
Last year, a Colombian cattle farmer was caught unawares while collecting water. The hippo bit his leg and threw him into the air, breaking his leg, hip and ribs.
Environmentalists have long been trying to sterilise the hippos, but it can take three months to track an individual animal and the procedure is not easy. Male hippos have retractable testes and the females’ reproductive organs are even harder to find.