How Pablo Escobar's Hippos Sparked An Ecological Debate

Once part of the cocaine kingpin's private zoo, the animals are now an invasive species impacting the local environment. But few in Colombia have the heart to kill them off.

Vanessa, one of the hungry hippo at Pablo Escobar's estate
Vanessa, one of the hungry hippo at Pablo Escobar's estate
Natalia Pedraza and María Mónica Monsalve S.

BOGOTÁ — The story's been told before, and dates back decades. And yet, its relevance continues to grow — in a very literal sense — and presents Colombia with a real conundrum.

We're talking about the handful of hippopotamuses that the notorious cocaine trafficker Pablo Escobar imported in the 1980s, for his private zoo. The drug lord was killed in 1993. But the huge herbivores lived on and made their way off the Escobar estate and into the nearby Magdalena river, where they have joyfully multiplied ever since.

People initially talked of 14, then of 40 hippos, though the review Biological Conservation now estimates that there are between 93 and 102 hippos roaming in an area of some 2,000 square kilometers. The review warns that at present reproductive rates, the number could reach 1,500 by 2039.

This is another of Escobar's troubled legacies for Colombia: an invasive species, and a particularly outsized one at that, with no natural predator in Colombia. The African animals, by all accounts, feel quite at home on the banks of the Magdalena. But they are threatening the livelihoods of local communities and directly, and very successfully, competing for food with two particular local species: the capybara and manatee.

A co-author of the recent study on the hippos, Rafael Moreno, explains that hippopotamus feces, furthermore, generate microorganisms that consume oxygen and effectively suffocate the surrounding ecosystem.

Killing them is a "technical" decision.

The problem, then, is what to do about the huge animals. They're an invasive species, yes. But they're also living, sentient creatures.

Not surprisingly, the issue has fueled debate on networking sites, especially in response to the Biological Conservation study, which suggests hunting — in addition to castration and transfers — to curb their numbers.

"For the population to die out, we need to take out 30 animals a month (15 males and 15 females)," Moreno explains. "The objective is to extract them from the environment because they are harming it."

Discussions on the ethics and politics of killing these animals reveal our differing perspectives on nature, and have effectively become a debate between defenders of animals and defenders of the environment, with nuances.

The biologist Juan Ricardo Gómez, a doctor in Rural and Environmental Studies from the Pontifical Xavierian University in Bogotá and specialist in invasive species, is clear on the need to cull. It may seem harsh, but killing them is a "technical" decision, especially since "nobody is prepared to pay for their removal elsewhere," he says. "You have to think of the effect the hippopotamuses have on other species and animals."

One of Escobar's hippos — Photo: Sinikka Tarvainen/DPA/ZUMA

But the veterinarian Isa Naudín, a member of the Animal Balance organization, wants more time. Her organization is embarking on a hormonal sterilization program in coordination with Cornare, a local environmental authority, that could be an alternative to culling. It's unclear how much the program will cost, or how long it might take to show results.

It was clearly an act of arrogance on Escobar's part.

Bringing over hippos from Africa was clearly an act of arrogance on Escobar's part. But in doing so, he also left us cause to reflect more deeply on our overall relations with nature, and on our tendency as a species to feel superior to and dominate nature, as evidenced by the worldwide environmental crisis we have collectively created.

The biologist Germán Andrade, a member of UICN, a conservation society, sees a clash of two visions of nature in the debate. One is defending the "ecosystemic ethics," which place biodiversity and ecosystems above particular creatures. "This dimension comes from the land ethic of Aldo Leopold, who believed something is good if it's good for the community in a wider sense, and not just for human beings," Andrade says, noting that this vision aligns most closely with the arguments of environmentalists.

On the other side, he adds, is the Peter Singer line of thinking, which holds that "ethics are manifest in human considerations intended to avoid the suffering of sentient animals." In other words, why kill the hippos and make them victims of a human decision?

Andrade believes the decision requires concessions to balance the emotions and scientific aspects of the dilemma. Debates between those giving humans or other life forms the central role should instead become a debate centered in the ecological system of which humans are a part. "The ecocentric ethic values the integrity of ecosystems, biodiversity and human rights over the lives of individual animals," he explains.

Catalina Reyes, a biologist at Los Andes university, suggests a similar solution. She agrees that the welfare and rights of the hippos must be considered, but says that the priority must be to safeguard Colombia's biodiversity. With that in mind, she proposes two steps: First, exhaust the sterilization option over a three to five-year period; then, if that doesn't work, cull the animals, but with enough sedation to avoid pain and suffering.

We tend to feel affinity with animals we see as being "closer" to ourselves.

In 2015, the Environment Ministry then led by Gabriel Vallejo won the Cannes Lions competition for its campaign encouraging people to fish and eat the lionfish, another invasive species threatening local marine life. In that case, though, no one complained about killing this fish to moderate its effects on the ecosystem.

Is that fair? Why does the hippo have more defenders, and why has it become a dilemma for environmental authorities?

In 2012, the debate around hippos became so politicized that a Medellín judge banned from hunting them on grounds that the animals are "charismatic." As Reyes points out, fish were not given "the same value as animals like the hippopotamus," being considered more "basic."

Moreno agrees, and says we tend to feel affinity with animals we see as being "closer" to ourselves. "That's why a little dog seems prettier than a snake. This shows how difficult it is to manage an invasive species that is charismatic," he says.

Education plays a role too. In school Colombians learn more about African animals than they do about native species. Juan Ricardo Gómez from the Pontifical University says if Colombians were educated early on about native "manatees of the Magdalena river, otters and capybara, the decision would already be taken, because we'd have more empathy and be clear on which ones to protect."

The ethical debate is both important and necessary, but shows no signs of being resolved any time soon. In the meantime, the descendants of Escobar's hungry hippos will continue to reproduce and spread out under the Colombian sun.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

New Delhi, India: Fumigation Against Dengue Fever In New Delhi

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 வணக்கம்*

Welcome to Thursday, where America's top general reacts to China's test of a hypersonic weapon system, Russia is forced to reimpose lockdown measures and Venice's historic gondola race is hit by a doping scandal. French daily Les Echos also offers a cautionary tale of fraud in the crypto economy.

[*Vaṇakkam, Tamil - India, Sri Lanka, Singapore]


Top U.S. general says Chinese weapon nearly a "Sputnik moment": China recently conducted a "very concerning" test of a hypersonic weapon system as part of its push to expand space and military technologies, Gen. Mark Milley, the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Bloomberg News. America's top military officer said that this was akin to the Soviet Union's stunning launch of the world's first satellite, Sputnik, 1957, which sparked the Cold War space race. Milley also called the test of the weapon "a very significant technological event" that is just one element of China's military capabilities.

Brexit: France seizes British trawler: A British trawler has been seized by France while fishing in French waters without a license, amid escalating conflict over post-Brexit fishing rights. France's Minister for Europe said it will adopt a zero-tolerance attitude towards Britain and block access to virtually all of its boats until it awards licenses to French fishermen.

COVID update: Russia confirmed a new record of coronavirus deaths, forcing officials to reimpose some lockdown measures, including a nationwide workplace shutdown in the first week of November. Germany also saw its numbers spike, with more than 28,000 new infections yesterday, adding to worries about restrictions this winter there and elsewhere in Europe. Singapore, meanwhile, reported the biggest surge in the city-state since the coronavirus pandemic began. Positive news on the vaccine front, as U.S. pharmaceutical giant Merck granted royalty-free license for a COVID-19 antiviral pill to help protect people in the developing world.

Iran nuclear talks to resume: Iran's top nuclear negotiator said multilateral talks in Vienna with world powers about its nuclear development program will resume before the end of November. The announcement comes after the U.S. warned efforts to revive the deal were in "critical phase."

First U.S. passport with "X" gender marker: The U.S. State Department has issued its first American passport with an "X" gender marker. It is designed to give nonbinary, intersex and gender-nonconforming people a marker other than male or female on their travel document. Several other countries, including Canada, Argentina and Nepal, already offer the same option.

China limits construction of super skyscrapers: China has restricted smaller cities in the country from building extremely tall skyscrapers, as part of a larger bid to crack down on wasteful vanity projects by local governments. Earlier this year the country issued a ban on "ugly architecture."

Doping scandal hits Venice's gondola race: For the first time in the history of the Venice Historical Regatta, a participant has tested positive to marijuana in a doping test: Gondolier Renato Busetto, who finished the race in second place, will be suspended for 13 months.


"End of the ice age," titles German-language Luxembourgish daily Luxemburger Wort, writing about how the ice melting in the Arctic opens up new economic opportunities with a new passage for countries like Russia and China but with potentially devastating effects for the environment. The issue of the Arctic is one of the topics that will be discussed at the COP26 Climate Change Conference which kicks off in Glasgow on Sunday.


$87 billion

A new United Nations report found that extreme weather events such as tropical cyclones, floods and droughts have caused India an average annual loss of about $87 billion in 2020. India is among the countries which suffered the most from weather hazards this year along with China and Japan.


Air Next: How a crypto scam collapsed on a single spelling mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy from Laurence Boisseau in Paris-based daily Les Echos.

📲 The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system. Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation.

📝 On Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, the CEO admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

⚠️ What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond". Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

➡️


"A weapon was handed to Mr. Baldwin. The weapon is functional, and fired a live round."

— Following the Oct. 21 on-set shooting death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, Sante Fe County Sheriff Adan Mendoza told a press conference that the "facts are clear" about the final moments before Hutchins was shot. The investigation continues to determine what led up to that moment, and any possible criminal responsibility related to how the "prop" gun that actor Alec Baldwin fired was loaded.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Share with us your favorite gondola memories or worst crypto scams — and let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world!

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!