MIAMI – Pablo Escobar’s escaped pet hippos could produce hundreds of descendants in Colombia by 2050 if no action is taken to control them, scientists have warned.
Elizabeth Anderson, a freshwater conservation ecologist at Florida International University, took part in an investigation into the potential ecological and socio-economic effects of the huge African mammals in the South American country.
“The objective of a scientific study like this is not to say whether it is good or bad that these animals are where they are,” she said in an interview with Efe.
The study warned their number could skyrocket to anywhere between 400 and 800 hippos by 2050.
There are currently between 40 and 60 of the semiaquatic animals in the Middle Magdalena Basin, home to Colombia’s main river which runs between the Andes and the Caribbean Sea.
The 1,500 kilometer waterway provides a habitat for more than 2,700 species of animals, in addition to being the most populated river basin in the country and watering some of Colombia’s main agricultural areas.
Escobar, head of the Medellin cartel, imported a personal zoo from the United States in 1981, including four hippos, three females and one male.
They were part of a collection of exotic animals at his Hacienda Napoles, a 3,000-hectare estate near Magdalena.
The drug lord was killed in a police operation in Medellin in 1993 and the animals mostly went to Colombian zoos.
But due to the difficulty of transferring them and their high maintenance cost, the hippos stayed where they were.
Their number has been increasing after some escaped from the estate and settled in the Magdalena.
Despite being dangerous animals, the Magdalena hippos are generally seen as a positive addition to the area by residents, who use them as a tourist attraction.
Some people have expressed fears that they will destroy crops, boats and fishing nets, Anderson said.
The team of scientists, including several from Colombian universities, will publish an article this year based on surveys of more than 1,000 locals on the social changes the species has brought to the country.
Among the options to eradicate the invasive species are giving contraceptives to the females and sterilizing the males.
Anderson warned that the longer authorities wait to take action the most costly it will be to put into practice.
Female hippos can begin to reproduce at three years of age and give birth every two to three years.
Hippos are native to Africa and have been listed as a vulnerable species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, with a declining population of 115,000 to 130,000.
But their Colombian cousins appear to be thriving since they have no natural predators and are not at risk from poachers, unlike in Africa.
In 2009, Colombian hunters and soldiers killed one of the escapees, which provoked an outcry from animal rights defenders.
The Regional Autonomous Corporation of the Black and Nare River Basins has launched several programs for managing the hippo population, Anderson said.
According to the study, the objective is to stop population growth and relocate those who are in the area.
The ecological impact of Colombian hippos could be significant, as they are capable of altering the habitat and the number of resources available to native species.
An individual can transfer 750 kg of dry carbon mass and nutrients per year from terrestrial ecosystems to aquatic ecosystems via defecation and excretion.
The scientists recommended Colombian authorities carry out a hippo census on lifespan, fertility and mortality to allow for more accurate projections on population growth.