Colombia Clashes With Cocaine Hippos

It’s bad enough that Colombia has to deal with the ever-present problem of cocaine trafficking. Now it has to deal with “cocaine hippopotamuses,” as well.

Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar used a portion of his billions of ill-gotten dollars to build a private zoo. Located at his Hacienda Nápoles ranch, the exhibits included many exotic animals not native to South America, such as ostriches, giraffes, elephants, and hippopotamuses. Most of these animals were illegally imported.

After Escobar was killed in 1993, most of the animals were donated to public zoos. Four hippos proved to be very difficult to capture, so they were allowed to remain on the untended estate.

Dubbed “cocaine hippos,” they increased to 16 by 2007 and expanded their territory to the nearby Magdalena River. They continued to be fruitful and multiply. By January 2021, estimates placed their number at 100.

Hippos are the third-largest land mammal on the planet, following the elephant and the rhinoceros. They play an important part in Africa’s ecosystem. In South America, however, they are considered an invasive species.

A hippo can generate as much as 400 pounds (181 kg) of excrement each day. One of the primary ways these highly-territorial creatures mark their territory is by spreading their excrement far and wide. This has raised concerns among scientists about the effect this is having on the local ecosystem. According to Smithsonian Magazine, the hippos’ excrement is triggering a massive growth of cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, threatening the water quality.

Colombian authorities have taken steps to keep the hippo population in check through an aggressive program of sterilization. Despite this, hippo numbers continue to increase. Researchers warned in a study, published in the journal Biological Conservation, that hippos, the “largest invasive animal” in the world, are likely to continue to spread throughout the country with escalating environmental impact.

The battle for “hippo equality” has crossed international boundaries. In October 2021, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio issued an order that permitted the Animal Legal Defense Fund to move forward with discovery as it seeks legal redress for the Colombian hippos. Despite many headlines from supposedly-reputable news organizations, the court did not rule that hippos are “Legal Persons.” (See this article for a good discussion of what the court actually said.)

The legal dispute centers around the Colombian government’s plans to curtail the cocaine hippo invasion and whether those efforts should include killing or sterilizing the hippos.

In the meantime, the hippos, blissfully unaware of the legal kerfuffle thousands of miles away, continue to stake out their ever-growing territory, fueled by their never-ending appetites.

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