In front of his house by the river, Álvaro Molina has neighbors he has learned to live with over the years: a herd of hippos, all descendants of the four descendants that drug trafficker Pablo Escobar brought to Colombia in the 1980s for his private use. zoo.
One day when he was fishing, he felt such a strong movement under his canoe that he knocked it over. “Once the female attacked me, (she was) the first pair to arrive because she had just given birth,” he told The Associated Press.
Molina, 57, is one of the few Colombians to have been attacked by hippos and still disagrees with their slaughter.
For the first time since Escobar illegally brought hippos to Colombia, so far from his native Africa, the government will take concrete measures to control their population: they will be declared an invasive alien species.
The standard will be signed in the coming weeks, Environment Minister Carlos Eduardo Correa told the AP. After the declaration, the government will create with experts a control plan for the species which currently totals around 130 specimens and which, according to projections, could reach 400 in eight years if their reproduction is not controlled.
“We are talking about many actions that can be taken, but it would be irresponsible to anticipate what this management plan will be. We talk about castration, sterilization, taking the life of hippos, but today on social networks, as it should be, they still give their opinion. 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 inhabitants 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 sacrifice. Several people told the AP they were ready to protest if they ordered his extermination.
“From afar, they make laws. We live with the hippos here and we never thought of killing them… the hippos are no longer African, they are Colombian,” defended Isabel Romero Jerez, an environmentalist from Puerto Triunfo where the Hacienda Napoles is located, which belonged in Escobar and which attracts hundreds of visitors. tourists after the capo was shot dead by police in 1993. He says this because in Africa, hippos are deadly to humans more than any other mammal.while in Colombia only a few injuries were recorded.
“I don’t see them as a threat, but there are difficulties with them. In the municipality we have had reports of three attacks against the civilian population,” Carmen Montaño, an official with the Municipal Agricultural Technical Assistance Unit of Puerto Triunfo, told AP. Hippos also cause crop damage as they are primarily herbivorous and forage for food in large quantities at night.
Locals report that they sometimes got out of the water and wandered the streets of the city. When it happened, traffic stopped and everyone walked away. In rural areas, where they live freely, fishermen usually find them when fishing at night, but it is possible to see them during the day.
“The human animal is the one that invades its territory, that’s why it feels threatened and attacked. I only see that human beings are careful, respectful, keep their distance,” said Romero Jerez.
Hippos, territorial and weighing up to three tons, are seen in the region as docile animals. Montes said two of his relatives took a newborn calf home, took a picture of it and then returned it to its mother. “I found them to be very easy to tame,” he said.
Scientists, on the other hand, warn that they have no natural predators in Colombia and that they are a potential problem for biodiversity since their droppings change the composition of 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’s document awaiting signature, warns that under a scenario of climate change and “increasing equatorial conditions, the ideal climate for species …would increase their dispersal across the country and a potential geographic and ecological niche overlap with native species, increasing the risk of possible competition for resources”.
Daniel Cadena, PhD in biology and dean of science at the Universidad de Los Andes, told AP that they are aggressive animals and are “far from the tenderness that many imagine”. “According to estimates in Africa, hippos kill more people per year than lions, hyenas and crocodiles combined… fights between males are a cause of mortality and, as it exists in many species in nature, there is infanticide: the males kill the young of other males”.
The regulation that will declare them invasive species is available for consultation by citizens before being signed by the Minister. The document states that the marketing, 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 like the giant African snail, coqui frog, black tilapia and lionfish.
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.
To surgically sterilize them, you have to put them to sleep, transport them to a safe place, and then cut through their thick skin. “Hippos don’t have what’s called obvious sexual dimorphism, it’s hard to tell if an animal is male… the genitals are internal,” Cadena explained.
This is an expensive and complex procedure as it includes the search for the specimens which are increasingly scattered in the mighty Magdalena River, where they have found favorable climatic conditions that coincide with their natural habitat with an added advantage: there are no seasons or droughts.
The declaration of an invasive species -and the eventual sacrifice of some specimens- brought back to collective memory the case of “Pepe”, a hippopotamus who, after escaping from Hacienda Napoles, was chased by gunmen elite of a private environmental foundation and shot down in 2009, prompting complaints from environmentalists.
Since then, no similar cases have been recorded in the country.