Escape Of The Cocaine Hippos

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.

120824_ex_hippopod-crop-rectangle3-largeEscobar 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.

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Ian Malcolm Was (And Is) Right

We all remember Dr. Ian Malcolm, the annoyingly egotistical mathematician and chaos theorist from the Jurassic Park books and movies.  Malcolm confidently predicted that, for all of its technology, Jurassic Park was a fundamentally unstable creation that would inevitably fail because “life finds a way.” He was right, of course.

His statement has proven to be equally true as it applies to the relentless advance of the dreaded Asian carp.  An “electric barrier” was created to keep the carp from moving up the Mississippi River and into the Great Lakes.  Now the carp have been caught past the barrier, only six miles from Lake Michigan.  The Great Lakes communities are tremendously concerned that the destructive fish will ruin the sports fishing and recreational boating industries on the Great Lakes, and Members of Congress from the surrounding states have now proposed legislation to permanently separate the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes in order to keep invasive species out.

Let’s hope that any action gets taken in time, but I think Ian Malcolm would point out that six miles is not a very long distance.  He might predict that if a fish was caught only six miles away, there is a good chance that other members of that species have already traversed the six-mile distance — and if they haven’t, they could jump, crawl, sprint, or be carried past whatever barrier is erected in their path.  Asian carp, he might suggest, will somehow find a way.