Pablo Escobar: Colombia sends 70 ‘cocaine hippos’ to India and Mexico, says governor

(CNN) Colombia plans to fly dozens of its “cocaine hippos” – the descendants of drug trafficker Pablo Escobar’s private menagerie – to new homes in India and Mexico in an effort to control their booming population, according to the local governor.

There are now between 130 and 160 hippos, according to the Colombian government, and they have spread far beyond Escobar’s former ranch, Hacienda Napoles, where they began as a population of just one male and three females.

The original hippos were part of a collection of exotic animals Escobar had collected in the 1980s on his ranch about 250 kilometers (155 miles) from Medellín. After his death in 1993, the authorities moved most of the other animals, but not the hippos – because they were too difficult to transport.

But they have since begun to reproduce rapidly, expanding their range along the Magdalena River basin, and they now pose an environmental challenge and concern nearby residents, authorities say.

A study in the journal Nature warned that their numbers could reach 1,500 within two decades.

In the past, the authorities have tried to control the population by means of castration and “shots” of birth control pills. But the contraceptive drive has had limited success.

Now there is a plan to transfer 70 of the hippos to natural sanctuaries in India and Mexico, the governor of Antioquia province, where Hacienda Napoles is located, said in a chirping.

Why India and Mexico?

A total of 70 hippos, a mix of males and females, are expected to be relocated — with 60 to India and 10 to Mexico.

The technical term for this operation is “translocation,” Governor Aníbal Gaviria explained in an interview with Colombian outlet Blu Radio, as it would involve moving hippos from one country that was not their original habitat to another that was also not their natural habitat.

The goal was “to take them to countries where these institutions have the capacity to receive them, and (home) them properly and control their reproduction,” Gaviria said.

Sending hippos back to their native Africa was “not allowed,” Gaviria said.

Pablo Escobar originally imported three female hippos and one male.

Sending hippos back to Africa risked doing more harm than good, both to the hippos themselves and to the local ecosystem, María Ángela Echeverry, professor of biology at the Javeriana University, previously explained to CNN.

“Every time we move animals or plants from one place to another, we also move their pathogens, their bacteria and their viruses. And we can bring new diseases to Africa, not just for hippos that are out there in the wild, but new diseases for the entire African ecosystem that hasn’t evolved with that kind of disease,” Echeverry said.

Apart from reducing the number of hippos in Colombia, the authorities hope to learn how to manage the remaining population, which is recognized as a potential tourist attraction.

Hippos will be flown in specially built boxes, Gaviria said in the radio interview, and will not be sedated at first.

But “emergency sedation” is possible if one of the animals is overcome by nerves during the flight, he added.

The translocation could be completed by the first half of this year if necessary permits are expedited, particularly from the Colombian Agricultural Institute, Gaviria said.

Invasive species

Hippos are seen by some as an invasive species that can pose a danger to local ecosystems and sometimes to humans as well.

Research has highlighted the negative effects hippo waste can have on oxygen levels in bodies of water, which can affect fish and ultimately humans.

Nature magazine cited a 2019 paper that found lakes where hippos were present had more cyanobacteria, which are associated with toxic algae. These blooms can reduce water quality and cause mass fish kills, affecting local fishing communities.

Hippos can also pose a threat to agriculture and to people’s safety, according to a Biological Conservation study published in 2021. Hippos can eat or damage crops and engage in aggressive interactions with humans.

“Hippos live in herds, they are quite aggressive. They are very territorial and are herbivores in general,” Professor Echeverry said.

While “cocaine hippos” are not native to Colombia, the local terrain is believed to be favorable for their reproduction, as it has shallow water sources and a large concentration of food.

Until now, Colombia has not been able to solve a problem that – in Gaviria’s words to Blu Radio – “got out of control”.

It remains to be seen whether the latest efforts will succeed where the contraceptive efforts failed.

With previous reporting by CNNE’s Paula Bravo and Melissa Velásquez Loaiza. CNN’s Jack Guy and Stefano Pozzebon contributed to this report.

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