Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Colombia's Compounding Hippo Crisis

Vanessa, a baby hippo who'd been abandoned by her mother, at the Hacienda Napoles around the year 2007.
They're like something out of Gabriel García Márquez's magical realism - altho they were brought here by murderous villain. They look cute, almost playful, but they are killers. And there are more and more of them.

Pretty cute. The hippo Vanessa at rest.
"We're sounding the alarm, in case people find one of these hippopotamuses," Minister of the Environment Luz Helena Sarmiento said recently.

El Tiempo newspaper called on Colombia to find a humane solution to the hippo crisis "before it becomes a catastrophe."

Cocaine king Pablo Escobar imported two hippos, along with elephants, giraffes and zebras, to his estate, the Hacienda Napoles, near Medellin, during the 1980s.

The hippos have since done what comes naturally, and today there 40 of them - and maybe more. At least ten hippos have escaped from the Hacienda Napoles (which is now a theme park) and are living happily along the Magdalena River.

As huge as they are, the hippos' reproductive success is not surprising. Animals in new environments often breed like crazy simply because they have no predators to worry about.
Hippos swim in the lake on the Hacienda Napoles.
Hacienda workers feed them in the hope that
happy hippos won't wander off.

But humans do worry about the hippos, which look cute but can be killers. The creatures can charge, and in Africa kill more humans than does any other large animal. A few years ago, a family of hippos escaped and was hanging around a small fishing town, frightening residents. The environmental ministry sent in professional hunters, who killed the daddy hippo, nicknamed Pepe. The killing produced protest marches across Colombia - a country where cockfighting and bullfighting are legal. (The photo the hunters published of themselves posing with the dead hippo resembled the photo looked a lot like the photo the hit squad which killed Pablo Escobar took with the corpse of the dead cocaine kingpin, who was then very obese.)

Hippos are far from the only invasive species humans have imported into Colombia recently. Government officials are also worried about a giant, poisonous African snail, Achatina fulica, which gobbles up food crops and can spread deadly parasites to humans. The lion fish, Pterois antennata, native to the Indian Ocean, is destroying Caribbean reefs.

Colombia's hippos appear to be doubling their population every decade or so. If they maintain that amorous enthusiasm, in a couple more decades there could be a thousand of them - and, reproducing geometrically, they'll eventually outnumber humans.

Of course, sooner or later SOMETHING has to put a brake on the hippo population explosion, whether it's hunting, disease, a predator, or whatever. Perhaps jaguars, or anacondas will figure out how to eat hippos.

Altho they're cute and comical, hippos are aggressive and can outrun humans over short distances. In Africa, hippos kill more people than does any other large animal. In Colombia, the hippos are also presumably competing with native animals such as manatees.

Dinosaurs, too. A t-rex gets gored on the
Hacienda Napoles.
Colombian officials have suggested several solutions. Shipping the hippos to Africa isn't practical, El Tiempo columnist recently suggested killing all of Colombia's hippos. But, judging from the response to the killing of Pepe, as well as to the shooting of a single giraffe in Denmark recently, the public protests probably make that impractical. Has anybody invented a hippo contraceptive?

and African nations don't want Colombia's hippos, which are genetically unhealthy, since they're inbred. Another idea is to castrate the males. But that's a difficult operation, and hippos don't like it. An
Drunken tourists beneath a cement dinosaur
on the Hacienda Napoles.

Alternatively, perhaps Colombia could take a liking to hippo meat. How about hippo ajiaco?

Perhaps Colombia can turn this crisis of hippoppotamic proportions into something good by establishing a hippo sanctuary somewhere along the Magdalena River. The hippos' historic range in Africa has shrunk dramatically due to habitat loss and poaching for their meat and ivory teeth. And, while they're at it, why not bring in other threatened species, such as rhinos and elephants?

For once, Pablo Escobar would have left a positive legacy.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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