Before you get any strange ideas: no, Colombia’s ‘cocaine hippos’ are not hippos on cocaine. But even now we’ve cleared that up, you’ve probably got a few more questions. What exactly is a ‘cocaine hippo’? How do they differ from normal hippos? And, most importantly, why are there even hippos in Colombia?
The so-called ‘cocaine hippos’ got their name because they were brought over to the country by drug lord Pablo Escobar. In the late 1970s, Escobar smuggled four hippos to his private estate near Puerto Triunfo, around 100 kilometres east of Medellín. They were intended purely to entertain; Escobar also collected bison, ostriches and rare goats.
When Escobar died in 1993, the hippos were deemed too difficult to seize and transport, so they were left to roam the Magdalena River, Colombia’s main waterway. They remain there to this day, and their numbers have increased dramatically. As of 2019, there are thought to be 80 to 100 of them spread across a range of 2,250 square kilometres.
Despite never being native to South America, it appears that the hippos have thrived in their new habitat. So why can’t we just leave them be, to prosper and do whatever they want? Well, it’s complicated.
The introduction of such a significant species to an already-finely-balanced ecosystem is apparently wreaking havoc on local biodiversity. The animals can apparently cause greater amounts of toxic algae, and their faeces has been killing fish species too. And they also pose a threat to humans: in Africa hippos kill up to 500 people a year. Although there have not yet been any recorded deaths by hippo in Colombia, as numbers increase, so does the risk of them encountering humans.
And the situation could get even worse. The hippos have been able to reproduce exceptionally rapidly because they don’t have any effective predators in their new habitat. Nor are there yearly droughts to keep populations down. Soon, they could number well over 1,000.
In short, the Colombian authorities are now faced with trying to reduce the hippo population. But perhaps inevitably, there’s another bizarre twist. In October US court ruled that the ‘cocaine hippos’ are legally people, in an attempt to stop the Colombian government from killing them. Instead, local environmental conservationists have settled on a mass sterilisation campaign. But hippos have a typical life expectancy of 40 to 50 years, so don’t worry about the descendants of Escobar’s prize quartet. They’re likely to be around for a good while yet.