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Infamous 'cocaine hippos' are running rampant and breeding like rabbits: 'The state must act urgently'

"There is a moral weight to the decision to cull a hippo."

Colombia's 'cocaine hippo' issue

Photo Credit: iStock

Unlike the infamous cocaine bear, these hippos are not doing drugs. But Colombian officials are still worried about so-called "cocaine hippos" taking over the country. 

A recent census by the Colombian government and the Alexander von Humboldt Biological Resources Research Institute counted the invasive hippopotamuses in Colombia and found a rapidly expanding population.

What are cocaine hippos?

The invasive "cocaine hippos" are the descendants of four hippos from Africa that drug cartel leader Pablo Escobar illegally brought into the country.

When Escobar died in 1993, his hippos escaped. Thirty years later, those hippos have expanded to a population now threatening humans and the natural environment. 

Why should we care about these hippos?

Since the hippos are non-native to Colombia, they have no natural predators, and their population can grow unchecked. 

The hippos are a point of contention among locals. Some locals benefit from the tourism based around the hippos, while others live in fear. Fishermen are especially worried as hippos are highly territorial and can quickly kill or seriously injure humans.

Researchers have studied the effects of the hippos on local ecosystems. The humongous animals are damaging the riverbanks and forests by trampling plants. Additionally, the hippos are out-competing native animals, like the West Indian manatee, for food resources.

Scientists are urging officials to take action before the problem gets worse. 

"There is a moral weight to the decision to cull a hippo. But the weight of the other decision — inaction — is far greater," ecologist Rafael Moreno said. "I hope this is something the politicians will understand."

What did the census find?

In 2020, there were an estimated 98 hippos in Colombia. However, the 2022 census showed that the current population is 181-215 individuals.

With 37% of the population being juveniles, the data showed that the hippos are breeding rapidly, perhaps even reaching sexual maturity sooner in Colombia. 

"Before, one argument against dealing with the hippos was that our information was limited and our arguments theoretical," commented Moreno. "But we have put that argument to bed now. This study shows that this is a real issue, and that the state must act urgently."

How do we solve the cocaine hippo problem?

The Colombian government is focused on tactics to eradicate the hippos. One option is to administer contraceptives to the hippos, which is costly and hasn't been adequately tested. One model suggested that this could take 45 years and cost at least $850,000 (in U.S. dollars).

Another option is to capture and castrate the hippos. This plan is projected to take 52 years and cost $530,000

Both options are relatively expensive, and these figures were estimated before the new population study was released. 

While Colombia tries to handle the hippos, it is looking to other countries with sanctuaries to take the animals. Given the animals' size, range, and habits, all of the options the government is considering will be difficult to execute. 

The last option is to kill the hippos, which some researchers think is worth it, given that Colombia is the second-most biodiverse country in the world. The hippos, if left to spread unchecked, could seriously impact the balance of flora and fauna in Colombia.

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