The man responsible for deporting Pablo Escobar’s ‘cocaine hippos’ explains how he plans to fly 70 of them around the world

Hippos are considered one of the deadliest land animals on the planet.Anadolu Agency/Contributor/Getty Images

  • Authorities plan to relocate 70 of Colombia’s wild-living hippos, but it’s no easy task.

  • Since hippos are large, aggressive, and have very tough skin, sedation requires a team effort.

  • Hippos that cannot be moved will likely be neutered or culled, as they threaten the ecosystem.

Colombian authorities have decided to deport at least 70 of Pablo Escobar’s “cocaine-addicted hippos” to zoos in other countries.

After the drug cartel leader died in 1993, most of the animals in his private menagerie were moved to new homes in zoos. But his four hippos – three females and a male – escaped to settle in the Magdalena River in Colombia. There they thrived and began to breed.

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.

As hippos pose a major threat to humans and the Colombian environment, this is a serious concern.

Before hippos can be moved to new homes, they must be trapped and anesthetized, for the safety of everyone involved. This task can seem terrifying, especially when you consider that hippos kill around 500 people in Africa each year – in fact, they are one of the deadliest land animals in the world.

So how do you trap, calm and safely transport at least 70 of them?

Very carefully, according to David Echeverri López, manager of biodiversity management, protected areas and ecosystem services at Cornare in Colombia. Cornare is the government agency responsible for the relocation of hippos.

Trap, sedate and transport hippos

Hippo at the Sabana Ecopark nature reserve in Tocancipa, Colombia.

Hippos have thick skin which makes them difficult to anesthetize.Anadolu Agency/Contributor/Getty Images

“We hope to move a number of hippos this year,” López, whose responses were translated from Spanish, told Insider. He stressed, however, that not all hippos will move to new homes.

“At the moment we only have interested zoos in Mexico and India,” he said. So authorities will continue to look for other options, from sterilization to finding other zoos and sanctuaries willing to capture hippos.

As for the relocation itself, Cornare plans to use his previously established capture protocol, which involves trapping the hippos in a corral.

López said they put food inside the corral, lock up the hippos, and have a team of professionals anesthetize them. From there, the hippos are crated, taken to the airport in trucks and flown to India or Mexico.

But it’s not an easy process. López said it required not only the combined efforts of Cornare’s team, but also the help of zoo staff who will be receiving the hippos.

“Anything involving hippos is risky, complex, expensive and time-consuming,” López said.

That’s because it’s incredibly difficult to catch, let alone anesthetize, even a single hippo.

How to anesthetize a hippopotamus?

sleeping hippos

Anesthetizing hippos is not only tricky but also expensive.Jenny Evans/Stringer/Getty Images

Colombian vet Gina Paola Serna told the Guardian in 2021 that anesthetizing hippos is very tricky, as it requires 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. The elimination of 70 hippos could therefore pose financial difficulties for the Colombian authorities in charge of the process, but López could not say exactly how much Cornare plans to spend.

The thickness of a hippo’s skin and the density of its subcutaneous tissue also make it difficult to administer enough anesthesia to keep it asleep for the right amount of time.

Why move the hippos?

A hippopotamus at Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda

A hippopotamus at Queen Elizabeth National Park in UgandaFreda Bouskoutas/Getty Images

Hippos are native to Africa, where their natural predators are lions, hyenas and crocodiles.

In Colombia, hippos have no predators and the humid climate is more favorable for breeding – so much so, in fact, that hippos start breeding at a younger age than they would in Africa, where regular droughts help control the population.

Colombia has labeled hippos a toxic invasive species in 2022, in part because they disrupt aquatic ecosystems and lower water quality. They also displace native wildlife and increase pressure on resources, López said. For example, they threaten river turtles, caimans and the endangered West Indian manatee.

Not only are hippos invading riverine habitats; their waste also alters water quality. Lakes with hippos contain more organic matter, which promotes the growth of toxic bacteria and algae that kill the fish – a potentially disastrous consequence for the people and animals that eat these fish to survive.

And of course, hippos are huge, aggressive and very strong.

“As a highly territorial species with wild and unpredictable behavior, they pose a danger to local communities, including traditional fishermen and other people living near rivers, who can be killed by hippo attacks,” said Lopez said.

To date, one person in Colombia has been seriously injured by a hippopotamus, but no one has died.

Other options: sterilization or slaughter

little hippopotamus

A hippopotamus calf with its mother.REUTERS/Tobias Schwarz

Environmental authorities made efforts to medically sterilize some of the hippos with Gonacon, an immunocontraceptive vaccine.

Cornare sterilized 13 hippos, López said, and transferred seven to zoos in Colombia.

Yet these solutions have done little to halt population growth. With few other options, the animal relocation plan came as an alternative to killing them. The country will have to look for other options for the hippos that remain after this relocation proposal.

Some biologists believe culling (killing a certain number of hippos each year) is the only real solution.

But after a hippo was killed in 2009, the resulting public protest led to legal protection for the remaining hippos – despite the fact that they are not native to Colombia and Escobar illegally imported them. four original hippos in the first place.

López said culling the hippos is the last possible option, but it also cannot be dismissed.

“In the event that the animals cannot be captured, sterilized or moved, they cannot remain free and reproduce, because the problem would have no end,” he said.

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