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The ‘Cocaine Hippos’ Are Out of Control

Cocaine hippos. Photo: Juancho Torres/Getty Images

Dozens of wild “cocaine hippos,” are, by all accounts, thriving in their adoptive home of Colombia, news that sounds positive on its face — a bloat of contented hippos doing their thing, tromping around in the mud! Nothing wrong with this picture! But according to some scientists, the ecological impact of their party lifestyle has been, and could continue to be, devastating. Therefore, some scientists are recommending a cull of the cocaine hippos, for fear that their numbers will continue to swell at untenable rates.

“Nobody likes the idea of shooting a hippo, but we have to accept that no other strategy is going to work,” ecologist Nataly Castelblanco-Martínez told the Telegraph.

To be clear, the cocaine hippos are not hippos who have consumed cocaine, admittedly an intimidating prospect as hippos can be highly aggressive and rank high among the world’s deadliest land mammals, per the BBC. No, the cocaine hippos are hippos Pablo Escobar (the late head of the Medellín drug cartel) illegally imported into Colombia during the 1980s, to live in the private zoo he kept on his estate. After Escobar’s death in 1993, the Colombian government either relocated or killed most of his animals, but apparently, four cunning hippos eluded capture. They’ve bred enthusiastically since then, and expanded their dominion past the boundaries of Escobar’s ranch. According to the authors of a study published in January’s journal of Biological Conservation, a cull may be the only way to manage the hippos’ continued sprawl.

Hippos are native to sub-Saharan Africa, where they must survive dry periods with limited river access; the Telegraph reports that Colombia is a comparative “hippo paradise,” with its abundance of rain and lack of natural predators. (The cocaine hippos being an invasive species, and all.) Having flourished in their new environment, the cocaine hippos are running roughshod over the Magdalena river basin. According to CNN, there were about 35 known cocaine hippos in the area in 2012, whereas now, there are anywhere from 80 to 100. Per the Daily Beast, we may be looking at as many as 1,500 cocaine hippos by 2040, if decisive steps are not taken.

For ecologists, one big concern is the staggering amount of poop the hippos already produce: They feed on land and then excrete the waste into water, altering its chemistry, fueling the growth of bacteria and algae, and potentially sickening aquatic animals and humans alike. And then, there is the problem of aggression: Hippos kill about 500 people each year in Africa, according to the Los Angeles Times, and while no cocaine hippo-related deaths have been reported in Colombia, the Telegraph notes that a farmer suffered a hippo attack last year, resulting in several broken bones.

Still, biologist Enrique Zerda Ordóñez, of Colombia’s National University, told CNN that castration would be a better solution, even if culling them looks like the “easy option.” Locals and tourists alike reportedly revere them. Government environmentalist David Echeverri Lopez agreed, telling the Telegraph that “there has to be another solution. These hippos have become part of the local identity.”

Plus, unlike these feral Italian hogs, there’s no reason to believe the cocaine hippos have gotten their mitts on any actual cocaine. At least not yet.

The ‘Cocaine Hippos’ Are Out of Control