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Colombia proposes shipping invasive hippos to India, Mexico


BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Colombia is proposing to transfer at least 70 hippos living near Pablo Escobar’s former ranch — descendants of four illegally imported from Africa by the late drug lord in the 1980s — to India and Mexico as part of a plan to control their population.

The hippos, which are territorial and weigh up to 3 tons, have spread far beyond the Hacienda Napoles farm, located 200 kilometers (124 mi) from Bogota along the Magdalena River. Environmental authorities estimate there are about 130 hippos in the area in Antioquia province and their population could reach 400 within eight years.

Escobar’s Hacienda Napoles – and the hippos – have become something of a local tourist attraction in the years since the kingpin was killed by police in 1993. When his ranch was abandoned, the hippos survived and reproduced in local rivers and favorable climatic conditions.

Scientists warn that the hippos have no natural predator in Colombia and are a potential problem for biodiversity, as their droppings change the composition of the rivers and could erode the habitat of manatees and capybaras. Last year, the government of Colombia declared them a toxic invasive species.

The plan to bring them to India and Mexico has been in the making for more than a year, said Lina Marcela de los Ríos Morales, director of animal protection and welfare at Antioquia’s environment ministry.

The hippos would be lured into large iron containers with food and transported by truck to the international airport in the city of Rionegro, 150 kilometers away. From there, they would be flown to India and Mexico, where there are shelters and zoos that can take in and care for the animals.

“It’s possible, we already have experience moving hippos in zoos across the country,” said David Echeverri López, a spokesman for Cornare, the local environmental authority said to be in charge of the moves.

The plan is to send 60 hippos to the Greens Zoological Rescue & Rehabilitation Kingdom in Gujarat, India, which De los Ríos Morales said would cover the cost of the containers and airlift. Another 10 hippos would go to zoos and sanctuaries in Mexico, such as the Ostok, located in Sinaloa.

“We are working with Ernesto Zazueta, the president of sanctuaries and zoos in Mexico, who liaises with several countries and manages their rescues,” the official said.

The plan is to focus on the hippos that live in the rivers around the Hacienda Napoles ranch, not the hippos within the ranch, as they are in a controlled environment and do not threaten the local ecosystem.

The moves would help control the hippopotamus population, and while the animals’ natural habitat is Africa, it is more humane than the alternative proposal of eradicating them as an invasive species, De los Ríos Morales said.

Ecuador, the Philippines and Botswana have also expressed their willingness to relocate Colombian hippos to their countries, the Antioquia Governor’s Office said.

Joanna Swanson

Joanna Swanson is Europe correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Brussels covering politics, culture, business, climate change, society, economies and inclusive tech. With specific focus in breaking news, she has covered some of the world's most significant stories.