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.”
Living with hippos
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.
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.
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.
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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.
Hippos float in the lagoon at Hacienda Napoles Park, once the private estate of drug lord Pablo Escobar.
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.