Colombia will declare hippopotamus as an invasive species with its population projected to hit 400 in eight years. Hippos were originally imported in Colombia by Pablo Escobar for his property in the 80s.
Within weeks, Colombia's government plans to sign a document declaring the hippos an exotic invasive species, according to Environment Minister Carlos Eduardo Correa. The ministry issued a statement about the decision on February 4 based on studies made by the Alexander Von Humboldt Biological Resources Research Institute and the Institute of Natural Sciences of the National University.
The next step will be to come up with a plan on how to control the population of hippos in Colombia. The population has reached 130 and is projected to hit 400 in eight years if nothing is done as they flourish in Colombia's rivers.
The population of hippopotamus originates from the Hacienda Nápoles, the luxurious property built by drug lord Pablo Escobar in Puerto Triunfo, located roughly in between Medellin and Bogota.
A few hippos were then imported illegally from Africa in the 1980s by the kingpin for his zoo.
Pablo Escobar’s Hacienda Nápoles has turned into a theme park now, managed by the municipality of Puerto Triunfo with water attractions and an animal sanctuary hosting wild animals from monkeys, parrots, elephants, and zebras to hippos.
After Escobar was killed by police in 1993, the ranch was abandoned. However, hippos survived and reproduced in local rivers enjoying favorable climatic conditions. They began showing up a decade ago around Puerto Triunfo, the 17,000-people town near Magdalena river.
Scientists warn hippos do not have a natural predator in Colombia and are a potential problem for biodiversity. They argue their feces change the composition of the rivers and could impact the habitat of manatees and capybaras, the world's largest rodent native to South America.
Hippopotamuses can also cause damage to crops because they are mainly herbivores and seek food in large quantities at night.
Hippos, not at gentle as people think and potential threat to native species
The Alexander Von Humboldt Institute analysis considers that equatorial conditions, increasing with climate change, will provide "the ideal climate for the species". It warns the population of hippopotamuses could spread across Colombia, potentially "overlapping with the geographic and ecological niches of native species, increasing the risk of possible competition for resources".
Hippos are territorial and can be aggressive to defend it. They can weigh up to three tons. Daniel Cadena, a biologist and dean of sciences at the Universidad de Los Andes, said they are not as nice as people imagine.
But people around Puerto Triunfo have grown accustomed to the herd of hippopotamuses. While hippos are considered one of the most dangerous animals for humans in Africa, there have been only a few injuries recorded so far in these parts.
"They make laws from a distance. We live with the hippopotamuses here and we have never thought of killing them," said Isabel Romero Jerez, a local conservationist. "The hippopotamuses aren't Africans now; they are Colombians."
"I don’t consider them a threat, but there are difficulties with them. In the municipality, we have had reports of three attacks on the civilian population," said Carmen Montaño, an official with Puerto Triunfo's Municipal Agricultural Technical Assistance Unit.
Locals say the hippos sometimes come out of the water and walk through the streets of the town. When that happens, traffic stops and people keep out of their way.
When the document declaring them an invasive species in Colombia is signed, hippopotamuses will join species such as the giant African snail, coqui frog, black tilapia and lionfish. The declaration will allow the government to allocate resources to control the hippo population, one of the main obstacles.
Control strategies are not defined yet and local communities will be consulted about the plan to control the hippos' population.
There is currently an experimental program of immuno-castration with a drug donated by the United States. Surgically sterilizing them requires sedating them, transporting them to a safe place and cutting through their thick skin.
Any population control process eventually promises to be costly and complex because it requires finding the hippos scattered along the mighty Magdalena River.