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SAN DIEGO – Even at Hacienda Napoles, hippos stood out.
Given the wonders of Pablo Escobar’s hideout in central Colombia, 7400 acres, it was not a small feat. The 63 million dollar estate of the famous drug trafficker had its own airport and helipad, artificial lakes, life-size dinosaur statues, a collection car fleet, a zoo full of elephants, rhinos, giraffes, rare tropical birds and other exotic beasts.
Even with all this, people noticed the hippos.
For good reason, said Jonathan Shurin, a biologist at UC San Diego: “These are large and charismatic animals.”
Hippos require careful handling. After the Colombian National Police killed Escobar in 1993, zoos and private collectors acquired the animals, all except the hippos.
When they wallowed on the Magdalena River, they were too difficult to handle and too dangerous to move. Over time, they escaped from the enclosure and entered the Colombian countryside.
They remain there today, and they are the only wild hippos outside Africa.
Escobar started with four hippos. When Shurin obtained a grant from National Geographic to study this phenomenon in 2017, the population had increased to about 65.
Today, he estimates there are 80 to 100.
“In 20 to 40 years,” he said, “there will be thousands.”
Working with biologists from the Pedagogical and Technological University of Colombia and with a post-doctoral student from UC San Diego, Natalie T. Jones, Shurin is measuring the impact of hippos in his new kingdom. During his expeditions, he learned a lot about the so-called cocaine hippos.
People say about wild animals: “if you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you” and “they are more afraid of you than you are,” Shurin said.
“But that’s not true with hippos.”
Withdrawn in a hurry
For centuries, these creatures have captured the human imagination. Plush toys in the form of hippos are found in the cribs of today’s children, while 4,000-year-old hippo pottery figures taken from Egyptian tombs are displayed in the Louvre. There are songs (“I want a hippo for Christmas”), children’s books (“George and Martha”, “Hippos go crazy”) and cartoons (“Hugo the hippo”).
Despite their popularity, hippos are often misunderstood. The name derives from the Greek “river horse”, but hippos are not an equine species. Nor are they related to pigs, as the first scholars argued; instead, current research relates them to the cetacean family.
“Hippos,” Shurin said, “are the closest land animals to whales.”
Another misconception: These are adorable creatures.
“River hippos are quite violent by nature,” said Jennifer Chapman, a mammal carer at the San Diego Zoo. “They have short wicks.”
Shurin, a Cleveland native who has taught at UC San Diego since 2010, is an expert in water resources and quality. Although this was his introduction to wild hippos, it is not unknown to Colombia, since he has carried out a previous research project in Lake Tota, the largest lake in the South American nation. He was surprised and intrigued when he learned of the enduring natural legacy of Pablo Escobar.
“That’s too good to pass up,” he decided. “This is a small window to the past.”
“The closest thing to hippos in America now is the tapirs,” Shurin said. “We have never had hippos.”
So he travelled south to Hacienda Los Nápoles, about 80 kilometers from Medellín, located in a valley on the edge of a rainforest. Hot and humid, mercury regularly rises more than 100 degrees, the earth is full of life: monkeys, macaws, iguanas. Swimming in the rivers there are manatees, giant turtles and alligators.
Asian water buffalos have also been imported, to work in the plantations that feed the palm oil trade, but do not roam free like hippos. Nor do they represent the same type of danger: territorial animals, hippos have been known to assault people who get too close. During one of his four trips to the area, Shurin was on a boat watching the hippos when the animals charged against him. He retired quickly.
That was smart, said Chapman of the zoo, who works with hippos.
“The river hippo is responsible for the majority of deaths in Africa,” Chapman said. “And they are fast. People don’t understand that. “
With a length of up to 16 feet, a height of 5 feet, and a weight of up to 4 tons, these beasts can reach speeds of 25 miles per hour on land. Although they don’t swim – Chapman pointed out that they actually run in river beds – they are deceptively fast in the water. “There are these amazing videos taken from boats,” he said, “you see a wave, a ripple in the river, and suddenly they show in slow motion this huge animal coming out of the water.”
Hippos kill about 500 people a year in Africa, making them twice as deadly as lions. So far, no deaths have been reported in Colombia.
“The locals seem quite indifferent to them,” Shurin said.
Nocturnal by nature, Colombian hippos eat large amounts of grass, grazing all night and night.
“They only eat on land,” Shurin said. “Then they come to the water and defecate all day.”
In an article published in the journal Ecology, Shurin, Jones and their Colombian colleagues used another term for waste hippos sprayed in the water. This “organic material,” as they called it, feeds algal blooms, alters oxygen levels and can lead to the death of fish. If the hippos waste continues to grow at the current rate, there is also a danger that local grasslands will be depleted.
However, there is currently no strategy to keep this population under control. Colombian officials told Shurin that there was no money to finance a sterilization campaign, and the locals oppose the sacrifice of the pack.
“Within Colombia, there is resistance to killing them,” Shurin said. “These animals attract tourists and people like them.”
So far, there is only a small amount of tourism related to the hippo. Shurin noted that some Colombians ventured into this region, eager to see these beasts, but saw no foreigners. There are no organized semi-aquatic safaris, although a restaurant has been opened on the coast overlooking a popular hippo wading area.
Among researchers, there is no clear consensus on whether this invasive species will benefit or harm the local environment.
Around the Hacienda Napoles, Shurin, Jones and their Colombian colleagues took water samples from 14 small lakes, two with hippo populations and 12 without them.
“The effects of hippos on the aquatic environment we observe,” the researchers wrote in the magazine, “suggest that sustained population growth poses a threat to water quality in lakes and rivers as they expand their range to throughout the Middle Magdalena basin and potentially colonize new regions in the Caribbean side of Colombia. ”
However, some biologists speculate that the nutrients that hippos pour into waterways can help other species thrive, expand Colombia’s wetlands and prevent grassland invasion.
Escobar’s ranch is now a popular amusement park, although the late drug lord remains controversial in Colombia. The multi-million dollar trade in cocaine triggered an open war in cities and rural areas. Judges and politicians were routinely killed, and many innocent Colombians were caught between two fires. Among the victims was a tourism industry, which is beginning to recover.
“Colombia is beautiful,” Shurin said. “It’s an amazing place to go.”
There is so much to see: bright beaches, snowy Andean peaks, rain forests, picturesque lakes. And, at least in the immediate future, a rare South American glimpse of African wildlife.
Source: San Diego Union Tribune