Expect to see hippos from Africa in… Colombia! Here’s why

by | September 22, 2021, 5:34 IST

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Hippos are indigenous to the continent of Africa, and there’s an intriguing tale to their presence in Colombia

So, we learned in school that hippos come from Africa. It was all part of the geography lesson that either bored us silly or kept us fascinated. But did you know that there is a population of hippopotamuses (yes, that seems to be the preferred usage now, rather than the ‘hippopotami’ we were taught in school) now living in the South American country of Colombia? Or that they are now a big (haha) problem. 

There were no hippos in Colombia until 30 years ago. The semi aquatic mammals are in the South American nation due to drug lord Pablo Escobar. He decided that he wanted his own private zoo, and, to that end, he smuggled several  species from countries across the world into Colombia. After his death in 1993, his zoo was dismantled. The different species were relocated to zoos and animal sanctuaries across the country — but four hippos were left behind. No one probably wanted them because they are known to be aggressive, and they can grow to be 8,000 pounds! Everyone thought they would die out. 

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Fast forward to 30 years later, and that number of four hippos is now about 80 to 120 hippos in Colombia across 13,500 square kilometers (8,300 miles). They are known as “cocaine hippos” due to their origins. Estimates startlingly show that there could be 1,400 of them living in Colombia by 2034 if nothing changes. 

Intriguingly, hippos are otherwise considered endangered, but, in Colombia, they are thought of as an invasive species. While the population is kept in check by drought and natural predators in Africa, the moist climate in South American Colombia helps hippos to thrive, which has a tremendous impact on the environment. Native species are feared to be displaced, and the hippos’ waste is changing the waterways’ chemical composition, which is a threat to fisheries. On the pro side, illegal fishing has been halted because of the hippos.

Although scientists have suggested culling at least 30 hippos annually to keep numbers down, Colombians have become used to spotting them across their country, and, unlike in Africa, hippos in Colombia are largely non-aggressive, locals are fine with sharing their country with them, and eating their meat is not done.  The option of sending them back to Africa, where they are endangered, is not feasible since they would probably not survive, and sterilisation is an expensive process, because keeping them sedated is difficult.

The result? You’ll see hippos aplenty in Colombia when you visit.

Images: Shutterstock

Also see: Go wild in Northeast India
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