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Government announces plans for 'cocaine hippos' to control their exploding population: 'We are in a race against time'

"All three strategies [would] have to work together."

"All three strategies [would] have to work together."

Photo Credit: iStock

In November 2023, the Colombian government announced its new plan to control Pablo Escobar's "cocaine hippos" — a growing population of invasive hippos threatening Colombians and their environment. 

What's happening? 

The drug cartel leader illegally imported four hippos from Africa to his estate in the 1980s. When Escobar died in 1993, his hippos escaped. One male and three female hippos increased their herd to an estimated 98 hippos in 2020. According to the latest government press release, there are now 169 hippos running wild in Colombia. 

Why are the "cocaine hippos" concerning?

Since hippos are not native to Colombia with no natural predators, they're breeding at unprecedented rates. The Colombian government's press release stated that the "cocaine hippo" population could reach over 1,000 by 2030 if action isn't taken. 

The hippos are crowding out native species and threatening the country's natural ecosystems and biodiversity by taking over habitats and food sources. With some males weighing over 9,000 pounds, these giant mammals are damaging Colombian forests and riverbanks. 

As reported by Smithsonian Magazine, the negative effects of hippo waste on oxygen levels in Colombian bodies of water are deeply concerning as it affects aquatic life and all of the locals who depend on it.

What's being done about the hippo population? 

The new plan, announced by Colombia's Minister of Environment and Sustainable Development Susana Muhamad, involves sterilization, relocation, and, in some cases, euthanasia.

"We are in a race against time in terms of the permanent environmental and ecosystem impacts that are being generated …," said Muhamad in a statement per CNN. "All three strategies [would] have to work together."

The first step is the sterilization campaign, which requires a team of eight, takes six to eight hours, and costs $10,000 per surgery with the goal of 40 hippos per year. 

"This procedure is very dangerous since the veterinarian must be very skilled to sterilize [a hippo] in the shortest time possible, before it wakes up," Germán Jiménez, a biologist at the Pontifical Javeriana University told the New York Times.

The Colombian government is also considering a plan to round up and relocate hippos to sanctuaries and zoos in other countries such as Mexico, the Philippines, and India. 

The last option is to ethically euthanize the hippos, a major point of contention. 

"They make laws from a distance. We live with the hippopotamuses here and we have never thought of killing them … they are Colombians," Isabel Romero Jerez, a local conservationist, told the Associated Press.

However, some researchers think it's worth preserving the second-most biodiverse country in the world. 

"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, per Nature. "I hope this is something the politicians will understand."

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