Saturday, March 2

Hunting hippos, a “necessary option” to control its invasion in Colombia

After the recent declaration of the hippopotamus as an “invasive species” in Colombia, experts agree that hunting appears as a “necessary option” to control the environmental problem that this unusual legacy of Pablo Escobar represents.

In the 1980s, the drug lord acquired a pair of these huge semi-aquatic animals for his personal zoo. The population has grown uncontrollably to about 130 individuals that are displacing the local fauna and threatening the population surrounding the Magdalena River, in the center of the country, according to experts.

This week the government included this animal native to Africa in a list of “invasive introduced species” and announced a plan to “manage” its population, which could quadruple in the next decade, according to some studies.

“The only thing that Colombia cannot allow is that this species exists in the territory,” Manuel Rodríguez, former Colombian environment minister (1994-1997), told AFP.

Although the state plan has not been revealed, Rodríguez has intervened in its design and asked the executive to use “all measures” to stop the advance of the hippopotamus, including hunting.

“Obviously there are animal activists who oppose it, but what is the alternative?” the former minister questions.

For 10 years, scientists from Cornare, a state entity for environmental protection, have carried out a sterilization program for hippos in eastern Antioquia (center), where half of the specimens are concentrated.

To date they have managed to surgically sterilize 11 individuals and another 40 with a drug called GonaCon. The estimated cost is over $100,000.

“Everything with hippos is complex, expensive and dangerous,” says David Echeverri, manager of Cornare.

Despite his efforts to capture, sedate and castrate these 1.3 to 1.8 ton animals, the population continues to grow in his jurisdiction.

“To the extent that one manages to perform surgery, 10 animals are born,” laments Echeverri. The drug GonaCon, which is administered by dart, makes the task easier, but it remains expensive (about $1,000 per individual) and Cornare currently has no more doses.

“Sacrifice remains on the table. It is a necessary option (…) it may be the last way out so as not to let the problem get worse,” he estimates.

The invasion of hippopotamuses in the hot Magdalena Medio region is an “unprecedented” and “dangerous” problem, says Rodríguez.

He assures that it is the only invasive species of this size in the world and warns that fishermen and other inhabitants of the area are “in danger”.

Last year Cornare recorded two hippopotamus attacks on residents, who fortunately only resulted in injuries. In Africa fatal attacks are common.

“We could face a tragedy,” warns Rodríguez.

The manatee, a huge and gentle herbivore that swam freely through the Magdalena Medio basin until the arrival of its African competitor, is also threatened, as are native fish, he adds.

At the beginning of the year, the animal activist and parliamentary candidate Luis Domingo Gómez proposed creating “a sanctuary” for hippos with public and private resources.

Experts agree in rejecting the proposal as they consider it costly and harmful to the local ecosystem.

“Are we going to maintain a sanctuary for hippos that attack the manatee?” criticizes Rodríguez.

It also questions the feasibility of encompassing in a reserve the 130,000 square kilometers inhabited today by this curious legacy of Escobar, who became one of the richest men in the world, according to Forbes, after founding an empire of crime and narco-terrorism.

Manatee biologist Nataly Castelblanco summed up her position “without hesitation” in a tweet: “Native species have conservation priority over invasive species.”

jss / ag / ll