Random Facts About … More on Those Hungry, Hungry Hippos

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By David Martin – 

Last week, we covered hippos and water hyacinths. This week, our internet tubes have much to tell us about hippos and the illegal international drug trade. Who knew hippos were so notoriously hip? 

Infamous Columbian drug lord Pablo Escobar owned a spectacular ranch northwest of Bogota, Columbia. With 7.7 square miles of land, the Naples Estate included fabulous buildings, an extensive sculpture collection, and a zoo on its way to being one of the largest in the world — until Escobar was killed in 1993. Most of the exotic animals were shipped to various zoos, but authorities considered Escobar’s three female and one male hippos to be too large and aggressive to capture and transport. Just leave them. This isn’t their native habitat so they probably won’t make it without anyone caring for them. 

Wrong. Hoo, boy, was that wrong. Those four original hippos have bred to nearly 100 that have populated waterways as far as 100 miles from Escobar’s ranch, using the Magdelena River as a hippo highway. South America has no natural predators for the hippos, and the people there don’t want the hippos killed even though people give the hippos a wide berth because of their aggressive nature. In their native Africa, hippos kill more people than any other wild animal. 

A naturalist quoted in a National Geographic article said that within two decades there could be thousands of hippos in South America. Authorities have decided so far not to kill the animals, but capturing and shipping the ton-plus animals is dangerous, difficult, and expensive. Castration and other birth control efforts have been made, but the hippos keep doing what hippos do and numbers keep increasing for these animals that can live 70 years. 

As with any other invasive species, the effect on the native environment is mixed, leaning toward the negative. Hippos stir up mud in the lakes, ponds, and rivers where they live, making the water murkier than it would otherwise be. Hippos feed on land, usually at night, but they poop in the water, and their waste products add massive amounts of nutrients to the water, encouraging algae blooms and decreasing the water’s oxygen content. 

In addition to the hippos’ natural propensity to spread far and wide, poachers are exacerbating the problem by capturing hippo calves and selling them to wealthy ranchers who like the idea of having a hippo or two in their ponds and lakes. The Mongabay nature magazine published an article about one hippo trafficker who routinely kidnapped a baby hippo, let his teenage daughter care for the calf, even keeping it in her room and walking it to a lake for water recreation. Meanwhile, her father let it be known he had a hippopotamus calf for sale. He did this repeatedly as have other traffickers. 

Some 20,000 years ago, South America was home to dozens of species of large herbivores, some of which were, like the hippopotamus, semi-aquatic. In the department of silver linings, maybe these Escobar hippos will reestablish a long-lost large herbivore environment. Whether the people of South America will still have affection for these ill-tempered animals once their numbers grow from 100 to thousands remains to be seen.

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