PUERTO TRIUNFO, Colombia (AP) — Álvaro Molina had his run-ins with the burly group of neighbors with unsavory contacts who showed up about a decade ago along the river outside his home in Colombia’s Antioquia province. But he has learned to live with them and says he is worried about a government plan which he thinks could harm them.
Residents of Puerto Triunfo have grown accustomed to the herd of hippos descended from a few illegally imported from Africa in the 1980s by flamboyant drug lord Pablo Escobar, whose former ranch is nearby.
Molina, 57, says he supports hippos even though he is one of the few Colombians to have been attacked by one. One day, while he was fishing, he felt a movement under his canoe which threw him into the water.
“The female attacked me once – the first pair that arrived – because she had just given birth,” he said.
In a few weeks, the Colombian government plans to sign a document declaring hippos an invasive alien species, according to Environment Minister Carlos Eduardo Correa. This means devising a plan to control their population, which has reached 130 and is expected to reach 400 in eight years if left unchecked as they bloom in Colombia’s rivers.
Correa said many strategies were being discussed but no decision had been made. Local communities will be consulted on any hippo population control plan, he added.
“They talk about castration, sterilization, the death of some hippos,” he said. “What is important is the scientific and technical rigor with which decisions are made.”
Most people interviewed in Puerto Triunfo, about 200 kilometers (120 miles) from the capital, Bogota, say they can get along with the hippos and many even oppose neutering – let alone killing some. some.
“They make laws from a distance. We live with the hippos here and we never thought of killing them,” said Isabel Romero Jerez, a local conservationist. “Hippos are no longer African now; they are Colombians.
Escobar’s Hacienda Nápoles – and the hippos – have become something of a local tourist attraction since the kingpin was killed by police in 1993. When his ranch was abandoned, the hippos survived and bred in local rivers and under favorable climatic conditions. They started appearing around Puerto Triunfo ten years ago.
Scientists warn that hippos have no natural predators in Colombia and are a potential problem for biodiversity since their droppings alter the composition of rivers and could impact the habitat of manatees and capybaras.
An analysis by the Alexander Von Humboldt Biological Resources Research Institute said that climate change and “an increase in equatorial conditions, the ideal climate for the species ‘could increase the dispersal of hippos across Colombia, potentially’ overlapping the geographic and ecological niches of native species”. species, increasing the risk of possible competition for resources.
Hippos can also cause crop damage as they are primarily herbivorous and forage for food in large quantities at night.
While hippos are considered one of the most dangerous animals to humans in Africa, only a few injuries have been recorded so far in these regions.
“I don’t see them as a threat, but there are difficulties with them. In the municipality, we had information about three attacks against the civilian population,” said Carmen Montaño, head of the Municipal Agricultural Technical Assistance Unit of Puerto Triunfo.
Locals say the hippos sometimes come out of the water and roam the city streets. When this happens, traffic stops and people move out of their way.
“The human animal is the one that invades its territory, which is why it feels threatened and attacked,” said Romero Jerez. “Human beings should be careful, respectful and keep their distance.”
Scientists warn that hippos are territorial and weigh up to three tons.
Daniel Cadena, a biologist and dean of science at the Universidad de Los Andes, said they are aggressive animals and not as gentle as people imagine.
“There are estimates in Africa that hippos kill more people each year than lions, hyenas and crocodiles combined,” he said.
When the document declaring them invasive species in Colombia is signed, the hippos will join species such as the giant African snail, the coqui frog, the black tilapia and the lionfish. The declaration will allow the government to allocate resources to control the hippo population, one of the main obstacles.
There is currently an experimental program of immuno-castration with a drug donated by the United States. To surgically sterilize them, you have to put them to sleep, transport them to a safe place and cut their thick skin.
“Hippos don’t have what’s called obvious sexual dimorphism, it’s hard to tell if an animal is male…the genitals are internal,” Cadena said.
Any population control process promises to be costly and complex as it requires finding the hippos scattered along the mighty Magdalena River.
Suárez reported from Bogota.