Authorities plan to relocate 70 hippos living in the wild to Colombia, but it’s not an easy task.
Because hippos are large, aggressive, and have very tough skin, sedation requires a team effort.
Hippos that cannot be moved will likely be spayed or culled, as they threaten the ecosystem.
Colombian authorities have decided to deport at least 70 of Pablo Escobar’s “cocaine hippos” to zoos in other countries.
After the drug cartel leader died in 1993, most of the animals in his private menagerie were relocated to new homes in zoos. But his four hippos, three females and one male, fled to settle in the Magdalena River in Colombia. There they thrived and began to reproduce.
Today, around 140 hippos live in the area. Some scientists estimate that their number could reach 1,500 by 2030 if no action is taken.
Since hippos pose a major threat to both humans and the Colombian environment, this is a serious concern.
Before the hippos can be moved to new homes, they must be trapped and anesthetized, for the safety of all involved. This task may seem daunting, especially when you consider that hippos kill around 500 people in Africa every year – in fact, they’re one of the deadliest land animals in the world.
So how do you safely trap, sedate and transport at least 70 of them?
Very carefully, according to David Echeverri López, responsible for the management of biodiversity, protected areas and ecosystem services of Cornare in Colombia. Cornare is the government agency in charge of the transfer of the hippos.
Capturing, sedating and transporting hippos
“We hope to relocate a number of hippos this year,” López, whose responses have been translated from Spanish, told Insider. He stressed, however, that not all hippos will be moving to new homes.
“At the moment we only have interested zoos in Mexico and India,” he said. Therefore, the authorities will continue to pursue other options, from sterilization to finding other zoos and sanctuaries willing to welcome hippos.
As for the relocation itself, Cornare plans to use the previously established trapping protocol, which involves trapping the hippos in an enclosure.
López said they put food inside the enclosure, locked up the hippos and a team of professionals anesthetized them. From there, the hippos are placed in a crate, taken to the airport by truck, and transported to India or Mexico.
But this is not an easy process. López said he requires the joint efforts of not only the Cornare team, but also the help of the zoo staff who will receive the hippos.
“Everything with hippos is risky, as well as complex, expensive and time consuming,” López said.
That’s because it’s incredibly difficult to catch, much less anesthetize, even a single hippopotamus.
How do you anesthetize a hippopotamus?
Colombian veterinarian Gina Paola Serna told The Guardian in 2021 that anesthetizing hippos is very tricky, requiring tranquilizer darts that can pierce their skin, which is 2 inches thick.
Serna also said the drugs needed to anesthetize such large animals are incredibly expensive. Therefore, the elimination of 70 hippos could pose some financial difficulties for the Colombian authorities in charge of the process, but López cannot say exactly how much Cornare expects to spend.
The thickness of a hippo’s skin and the density of their subcutaneous tissue also make it difficult to provide enough anesthesia to keep them asleep for the right amount of time.
Why move hippos?
Hippos are native to Africa where their natural predators include lions, hyenas and crocodiles.
In Colombia, hippos have no predators and the humid climate is more conducive to breeding, so much so that, in fact, hippos start breeding at a younger age than they would in Africa, where regular droughts help keep the population in check. .
Colombia designated hippos a toxic invasive species in 2022, in part because they disrupt aquatic ecosystems and decrease water quality. They also displace native wildlife and increase pressure for resources, López said. For example, they threaten river turtles, caimans and the endangered Antillean manatee.
Not only do hippos conquer riverine habitats; their waste also changes the quality of the water. Lakes with hippos contain more organic matter, which encourages the growth of toxic algae and bacteria that kill the fish, a potentially disastrous consequence for the people and animals who eat those fish to survive.
And of course, hippos are huge, aggressive and very strong.
“As highly territorial species with wild and unpredictable behavior, they pose a danger to local communities, including traditional fishermen and others living near rivers, who could be killed by hippo attacks,” López said.
To date, one person in Colombia has been seriously injured by a hippopotamus, though no one has died.
Other options: sterilization or blast chilling
Environmental authorities have made efforts to medically sterilize some hippos with Gonacon, an immunocontraceptive vaccine.
Cornare spayed 13 hippos, López said, and transferred seven of them to zoos in Colombia.
Yet these solutions have not done much to halt population growth. With few other options, the plan to relocate the animals came about as an alternative to killing them. The country will have to pursue other options for the hippos remaining after this proposed relocation.
Some biologists believe that culling – the killing of a certain number of hippos each year – is the only real solution.
But after a hippo was killed in 2009, the ensuing public outcry led to legal protection for the other hippos, despite the fact that they are not native to Colombia and Escobar illegally imported the original four hippos.
López said shooting down the hippos is the last possible option, but it also can’t be ruled out.
“If the animals cannot be captured, sterilized or relocated, they cannot remain in the wild and reproduce, as there will be no end to the problem,” he said.
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