The Colombian government is considering declaring a herd of hippos descended from animals illegally imported by drug lord Pablo Escobar in the 1980s as an invasive alien species.
Residents of the town of Puerto Triunfo have grown accustomed to living near the herd and many oppose any population control measures.
In a few weeks, the government plans to sign the declaration, which means it must come up with a plan to control the hippo population, which has reached 130 and is expected to reach 400 within eight years.
Among the strategies discussed are castration, sterilization or slaughter.
Colombian Environment Minister Carlos Eduardo Correa said many strategies were being discussed to control the hippos, but no decisions had been made.
Local communities will be consulted on any hippo population control plan, he added.
“They talk about castration, neutering, killing hippos,” he said. “What is important is the scientific and technical rigor with which decisions are made.”
Most people interviewed in Puerto Triunfo, about 120 miles from the capital, Bogota, say they can get along with the hippos.
Local resident Alvaro Molina had his run-ins with the beefy creatures, which showed up a decade ago along the river outside his home in Colombia’s Antioquia province.
Hippos are no longer African now; they are colombiansIsabel Romero Jerez, ecologist
But he has learned to live with them and says he fears they will be harmed under the government plan.
The 57-year-old says he supports hippos even though he is one of the few Colombians to have been attacked by one. One day, while he was fishing, he felt a movement under his canoe which threw him into the water.
“The female attacked me once – the first pair that arrived – because she had just given birth,” he said.
Isabel Romero Jerez, a local environmentalist, said of the government: “They make laws from a distance. We live with the hippos here, and we never thought of killing them.
“Hippos are no longer African now; they are Colombians.
Escobar’s sprawling estate, Hacienda Napoles – and the hippos – became a local tourist attraction in the years after the kingpin was killed by police in 1993.
When his ranch was abandoned, the hippos survived and bred in local rivers under favorable climatic conditions. They started appearing around Puerto Triunfo ten years ago.
However, scientists warn that hippos have no natural predators in Colombia and are a potential problem for biodiversity since their droppings change the composition of rivers and could impact the habitat of manatees and capybaras.
An analysis by the Alexander Von Humboldt Biological Resources Research Institute said that climate change and “an increase in equatorial conditions, the ideal climate for the species ‘could increase the dispersal of hippos across Colombia, potentially’ overlap with native geographic and ecological niches”. species, increasing the risk of possible competition for resources”.
Hippos can also damage crops as they are primarily herbivorous and forage for food in large quantities at night.
While hippos are considered one of the most dangerous animals to humans in Africa, only a few injuries have been recorded so far in Colombia.
Locals say the hippos sometimes come out of the water and roam the city streets. When this happens, traffic stops and people move out of their way.
“The human animal is the one that invades its territory, which is why it feels threatened and attacked,” said Ms. Romero Jerez.
“Human beings should be careful, respectful and keep their distance.”
Scientists warn that hippos are territorial and weigh up to three tons.
Daniel Cadena, a biologist and dean of science at the Universidad de Los Andes, said they are aggressive animals and not as gentle as people imagine.
“There are estimates in Africa that hippos kill more people each year than lions, hyenas and crocodiles combined,” he said.
When the document declaring them invasive species in Colombia is signed, the hippos will join species such as the giant African snail, the coqui frog, the black tilapia and the lionfish.
The declaration will allow the government to allocate resources to control the hippo population, one of the main obstacles.
There is currently an experimental program of immuno-castration with a drug donated by the United States. To surgically sterilize them, you have to put them to sleep, transport them to a safe place and cut their thick skin.
Any population control process promises to be costly and complex because it requires finding the hippos scattered along the Magdalena River.