When murderous cocaine drug lord Pablo Escobar was killed in 1993, Colombian authorities no doubt thought his days of affecting the country were over. They didn’t count on the impact of his . . . hippopotamuses.
Escobar was a quirky narcoterrorist who kept a zoo on his sprawling estate. After his death, most of the animals were removed, but his four hippos were left in a pond there. You’ve probably guessed what happened next. The four hippos soon lumbered out of the pond and off Escobar’s property to the nearby Magdalena River, where they made their new home. In the last 25 years they’ve been thriving. Nobody knows exactly how many there are, but estimates are that between 40 and 60 hippos are there on the river, swimming about in that curiously dainty hippo way, breeding like crazy, and otherwise doing their hippo thing. Colombians have dubbed them the “cocaine hippos.”
But here’s the problem — hippos aren’t a native species to South America. In fact, they are an invasive species, and some Colombian conservationists and biologists are concerned that the hippos are wrecking the environment and harming the other occupants on the river, such as otters and manatees. And, because hippos eat on dry land but deposit their waste in water, the hippo discharges are changing the nutrient composition of the river and nearby waterways. Even the hippos’ swimming may be affecting the indigenous species, by affecting the muddiness of the rivers and thereby upsetting nature’s delicate balance. As a result, some ecologists say the hippos need to be removed or their population otherwise curbed — which may be easier said than done, when you’re talking about territorial, thousand-pound creatures living in the wild who aren’t exactly eager to interact with humans.
But others say, “not so fast.” They think the escape of the hippos was an inadvertent example of “rewilding” — the concept of putting non-native flora and fauna into an area to fill a vacant ecological niche. It’s like the decision to release timber wolves back into areas of the country that they had vacated decades ago, except in this case some are arguing that hippos are in effect replacing large herbivorous creatures that went extinct in the South American ecosystem in the last 20,000 years — creatures like the toxodont (which incidentally sounds like the name for a dental care product). Still others argue that having a surplus population of hippos in South America is a great thing, just in case the African hippos might be subject to extinction due to changes in their environment.
While the debate rages, the hippos continue to enjoy life on the Magdalena River. Their escape and success reaffirms once again what the Jeff Goldblum character said in Jurassic Park: life somehow finds a way.