Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar has been dead since 1993 when he was killed in a shootout but one of his lesser known legacies – hippotamus victims of the Vanity Animal Trade – are at the center of serious debate in Colombia. In the US these invasive hippos have won a legal victory in a ruling that the hippos have human rights.
As the stories covered in this blog regarding captive tigers, dogs mistreated by breeders, and fox pups sold as domestic puppies show, the captive wild animal trade has lots of negative consequences. It is estimated to be a multi-billion dollar business leaving misery and chaos behind.
The convoluted story begins with Escobar’s decision to build his ranch at Hacienda Napoles in the town and municipality of Puerto Triunfo located about halfway between Medellin, the home of his cartel, and the Nation’s capital, Bogota. Like many rich people he built a private zoo with little regard for consequences. After his death all the other animals were dispersed to actual zoos except for the hippos. Large, aggressive and difficult to handle they were left in place, perhaps with the expectation that they would die.
Instead, they found the River Magdalena a true home away from home, with enough to eat and free from predators. Their numbers began to expand, and some evidence suggests they like the area enough to have begun to breed earlier than they do in Africa. No one knows how many of the “cocaine hippos” as they are called, are in the region but the number may have grown from 30 or so to well over 100 with some estimates indicating the number could swell to over 1,000 in less than 20 years. The river basin they inhabit is a waterway they could use to colonize the whole country with unknown consequences. Some fear they could displace endangered native species such as manatees. Others think their biological presence and droppings could alter the river’s chemical balance, ruining fisheries. A potentially bigger problem is human-hippo conflict. About 500 people a year are killed in Africa by hippos and the animals routinely rest near the top of the most “dangerous animals” lists. So far no one has been killed by hippos in Colombia, but serious injuries have occurred.
What to do? Colombian scientists do not seek to exterminate the animals but rather to limit their numbers either by killing a select number – thus “culling” the herd – or by trying to sterilize enough hippos that their reproduction is slowed. Neither option is easy, but sterilizing a hippo is dangerous and expensive as pilot efforts to do so have found.
Meanwhile US animal rights activists have found a sympathetic judge who has declared the hippos to be “people” in the eyes of US law. This ruling has no impact on Colombia and its decisions of what to do about the hippos. It is however, the first time a federal judge has stated animals have human rights and the decision is controversial. Activists hail the decision but others fear unintended consequences if the ruling stands and expands.