Álvaro Molina has neighbors in front of his house on the river bank with whom he has learned to live with over the years: a herd of hippos, all descendants of the four offspring that drug trafficker Pablo Escobar brought to Colombia in the 1980s for his private zoo.
One day when he was out fishing he felt such a strong movement under his canoe that it knocked him over. “Once the female attacked me, (she was) the first couple to arrive because she had just given birth,” he told The Associated Press.
Molina, 57, is one of the few Colombians who has been attacked by hippos and still does not agree with their being slaughtered.
For the first time since Escobar illegally brought hippos to Colombia, so far from his native Africa, the government will take concrete actions to control their population: they will be declared an invasive alien species.
The norm will be signed in the coming weeks, Environment Minister Carlos Eduardo Correa told AP. After the declaration, the government will create with experts a control plan for the species that currently totals about 130 specimens and that according to projections may reach 400 in eight years if their reproduction is not controlled.
“There is talk of many actions that can be done, but it would be irresponsible to anticipate what that management plan is going to be. There is talk of castration, sterilization, of taking the lives of hippos, but today on social networks, as it should be, they give their opinion anyway. What is important here is the technical and scientific rigor with which these decisions are made,” Correa said.
The decision is unpopular. In Puerto Triunfo -200 kilometers from Bogotá- the residents of the area where the hippos live defend them and say they are used to their presence, some even oppose sterilization and even more so to sacrifice. Several people told the AP that they are ready to protest if they order his extermination.
“From a distance they make laws. We live with the hippos here and we have never thought of killing them… the hippos are no longer African, they are Colombian,” defended Isabel Romero Jerez, a conservationist from Puerto Triunfo where Hacienda Napoles is located, which belonged to Escobar and which attracts hundreds of visitors. tourists after the capo was shot down by police in 1993. He says this because in Africa hippos are lethal to humans, more than any other mammal.while in Colombia only a few injuries have been recorded.
“I don’t consider them a threat, but there are difficulties with them. In the municipality we have had reports of three attacks on the civilian population,” Carmen Montaño, an official from the Puerto Triunfo Municipal Agricultural Technical Assistance Unit, told the AP. Hippopotamuses also cause damage to crops because they are mainly herbivores and seek food in large quantities at night.
The inhabitants of the area report that sometimes they have come out of the water and walked through the streets of the town. When it happened, the traffic stopped and everyone walked away. In rural areas, where they live freely, fishermen usually find them when they fish at night, but it is possible to see them during the day.
“The human animal is the one that invades their territory, so that is why they feel threatened and attack. I only see that human beings are prudent, respectful, keep distances”, said Romero Jerez.
Hippopotamuses, territorial and weighing up to three tons, are seen in the area as docile animals. Montes recounted that two of his relatives took a newborn calf to the house, took pictures of it and then returned it to its mother. “I have found that they are very easy to tame,” he said.
Scientists, on the other hand, warn that they do not have a natural predator in Colombia and are a potential problem for biodiversity since their feces change the composition of the rivers and could impact the habitat of manatees and capybaras.
An analysis by the Alexander Von Humboldt Biological Resources Research Institute, included in the Ministry document that awaits signing, warns that in a scenario of climate change and “an increase in equatorial conditions, the ideal climate for the species… would increase their dispersion in the country and a potential overlapping of the geographic and ecological niche with native species, increasing the risk of possible competition for resources”.
Daniel Cadena, doctor in Biology and dean of Sciences at the Universidad de Los Andes, explained to AP that they are aggressive animals and are “far from being the tenderness that many imagine.” “There are estimates in Africa that hippos kill more people a year than lions, hyenas and crocodiles combined… fighting between males is a cause of mortality and, as it exists in many species in nature, there is infanticide: males kill the young of other males”.
The rule that will declare them an invasive species is available for consultation by citizens before being signed by the minister. The document indicates that the commercialization, possession, reproduction and propagation of the species will be prohibited. With this, the common hippopotamus will join the list of invasive species in the country such as the giant African snail, the coqui frog, the black tilapia and the lion fish.
This will allow the government to allocate resources to control the hippo population, one of the main obstacles so far. There is currently an experimental program of immunocastration with a drug donated by the United States.
Surgically sterilizing them requires sedating them, transporting them to a safe place, and then cutting through their thick skin. “Hippopotamuses do not have what is called obvious sexual dimorphism, it is difficult to know if an animal is male… the genitals are internal,” Cadena explained.
It is a costly and complex procedure because it includes finding the specimens that are increasingly scattered throughout the mighty Magdalena River, where they have found favorable climatic conditions that coincide with their natural habitat with an additional advantage: there are no seasons or droughts.
The declaration of an invasive species -and the eventual sacrifice of some specimens- brought to collective memory the case of “Pepe”, a hippopotamus who, after escaping from Hacienda Napoles, was chased by snipers from a private environmental foundation and shot in 2009, prompting complaints from environmentalists.
Since then no similar case has been recorded in the country.