The late drug lord Pablo Escobar’s pet hippos are taking over Colombia’s wilderness, which could spell trouble for the environment, but the locals are perfectly happy with their new semiaquatic neighbors.
Hippos are native to Africa, not South America, which classifies them as an invasive species. How’d they even get to Colombia? In the ‘80s and ‘90s, Escobar practically monopolized the illicit cocaine trade, and he made so much money that he could afford his own illegal zoo on his estate — a zoo that housed four so-called “cocaine hippos.” Shortly after Escobar was killed by the Colombian National Police in 1993, the hippos escaped from the illicit zoo. Since then, the original population of four have thrived, as there are an estimated 100 hippos now roaming throughout Colombia.
“Within a couple of decades, there could be thousands of them,” Jonathan Shurin, an ecologist with the University of San Diego, told National Geographic.
Thousands of non-native hippos could disrupt Colombia’s fragile ecosystem. Hippos can be aggressive and territorial, and they drop feces by the ton, which can alter the chemistries of lakes, rivers, and soil. However, physically removing even one hippo and transporting it overseas is a gargantuan task, and the killing of a cocaine hippo in 2009 prompted public outcry. So, the hippos will likely remain in Colombia, for better or worse.
Luckily, there’s a potential “better” in this situation.
As noted by Business Insider, hippos could help restore the environment just as easily as they can wreck it. In a letter to the science journal Perspectives in Ecology and Conservation, biologist Jens-Christian Svenning details a new environmental restoration process called “trophic rewilding,” where large mammals such as hippos are introduced to areas ravaged by human development.
Hippos can restructure the landscape due to their massive bodies moving across the ground, transfer nutrients from the soil to the water en masse, and encourage new plant growth by feeding on older plants. Scientists, such as Shurin, anticipate that rewilding hippos in Colombia could reverse the wide scale ecological losses the region experienced over the past 20,000 years not only from human activity but also from the natural extinctions of “dozens of giant herbivore species.”
"The fact that there are wild hippopotamuses in South America [is] a wonderful story of survival, of agency, of pioneering," Arian Wallach, an ecologist with the University of Technology in Sydney, told National Geographic.
And the fact that the War on Drugs and America’s insatiable appetite for cocaine, indirectly, brought these hippos to Colombia is even more wild.