Pablo Escobar’s cocaine hippos: friend or foe?


Hippos are the most dangerous land mammals globally, killing around 500 humans every year. Doesn’t sound like hippos, right? Wallowing around in the mud, batting away the flies- but at over 2,500kg the huge mammals are prone to aggressive behaviour and alongside immense strength, have very sharp teeth. Bet Pablo Escobar didn’t factor that in when he made four of the animals his pets. And it seems that upon his demise, the Colombian government didn’t either.

In 1993, Pablo Escobar was shot dead, leaving, amongst other things, his “cocaine hippos” to live out their dreams of freedom. Seizing his expansive north-western Colombian estate, the Colombian government dismantled Escobar’s private zoo, parcelling off the exotic, non-native animals elsewhere. All except for four hippos. Which, in the past 17 years, haven’t been wasting their time.

Escobar’s old pet hippos are shaking up their new home in the Magdalena river, Colombia

Now with a 100-strong population, Escobar’s old pets have set out to change the world, one ecosystem at a time. Parting with Escobar’s former ranch, the hippos made for the Magdalena, Colombia’s main river where they have become something of a pest. Acting like an invasive species, if these hippos continue to reproduce at exponential rates, they will begin to displace native animals such as manatees or otters. Not only that, the foreign animals can have dramatic effects on habitats adjusting their environments to suit them, known as “ecosystem engineers”.

Hippos feed on land and excrete in water, thus redistributing nutrients throughout the environment. Adding these extra nutrients to aquatic surroundings alters the chemistry of the water altering predator-prey interactions of fish. Even just wandering around in the mud can forge channels redirecting the flow of water in wetland areas. These drastic changes to the environment upset the ecological balance having consequences on the food chain and habitats.

Detectable changes are already being made to the current ecosystem with the formation of “hippo lakes”. These lakes have higher nutrient concentrations increasing the chances of toxic algal blooms which drastically reduce the oxygen content of the bodies of water causing other species there to die off. The differences between hippo lakes and other lakes around the region currently aren’t huge, but with the hippos still being rare in Colombia, increasing numbers could vastly impact the local environment.

The hippos certainly haven’t been wasting their time

But the nutrient increase in environments could also be a good thing according to some scientists by creating new niches for other organisms to positively impact the ecosystem. Similarly divisive in the community, the Colombian government has suggested a cull to remove the pests, but public outcry over a hippo killing in 2019 caused the government to take a hasty step back. Beloved by the locals, the hippos are also facing extinction, so their rewilding and boosting numbers is beneficial to the species at large.

Currently, the hippos are being left to their own devices and being closely monitored, but with no plans of relocation or sterilisation. There are fears for increasing numbers causing issues with residents in the area due to their aggression, however so far there have been no human casualties resulting from their dwelling in close proximity.

At this rate, the hippos will continue their personalisation of the ecosystem around the river Magdalena, but if they continue to increase in numbers the effects could be both detrimental and life-saving in completely different ways. For now, an experiment to monitor them is ongoing, to see just what mayhem Escobar’s old pets will cause.

Image: Megha Rolly

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