Up to 100 hippopotamuses, all descended from four animals illegally imported into Colombia by the cocaine smuggler Pablo Escobar in the late 1980s, are menacing Colombia’s marshlands and river systems.
Scientists told The Daily Telegraph that the country must cull the aggressive “cocaine hippos” roaming the Magdalena river basin, as they are breeding uncontrollably in the country’s wet and warm climate. In their natural African habitat, they are less fecund due to a long dry season.
Escobar, who was said to be worth a staggering US$25 billion at his most powerful built his own zoo, complete with elephants and hippopotamuses.
When he was shot dead in 1993, the Colombian government took control of his estate, including the animals, most of which were either euthanised or sent to other zoos.
The hippos, however, living in a remote pond, escaped the cull because of difficulties capturing them.
Researchers say the river animals are now competing with native wildlife and polluting local waterways with their toxic urine and faeces.
Authorities have made efforts to sterilise them but without success owing to the fact that male hippos have retractable testes.
David Echeverri Lopez, a government environmentalist, told The Telegraph that he is able to castrate roughly one hippo per year, whereas scientists estimate that their population grows by 10% per year.
“Nobody likes the idea of shooting hippos, but we have to accept that no other strategy is going to work,” ecologist Nataly Castelblanco-Martínez told The Telegraph.
The hippos have been adopted by local villagers and become a tourist attraction.
Paying visitors can tour Escobar’s former mansion and visit the lake where several dozen hippos now live, protected by environmental law.
Although they are mostly herbivorous, hippos, the largest land animal in the world after elephants, weighing in at over 3,500kg, are highly aggressive and regarded as one of the most dangerous animals in Africa.
Being highly territorial, they often attack without provocation when people encroach on their rivers or lakes in which they rest submerged and motionless.
These unpredictable “water-horses” kill around 3,000 people every year in Africa.