Colombia proposes to capture and transport 70 hippos to India and Mexico after a large population of the African species was allowed to breed in the river and lakes around the late Pablo Escobar’s property.

What began as four illegally imported “cocaine hippos”, which were pets of the cartel kingpin, quickly multiplied to a group of 150 people in the absence of any natural predators, Nature reports. The Colombian government has largely left the hippos unchecked until now, even as they wreak havoc on the area’s ecology, scientists say.

The cocaine hippos fled Escobar’s ranch Hacienda Napoles after the drug kingpin was killed by national police in 1993. Since then, the hippos have taken up residence in the nearby Magdalena River watershed and beyond, where they could multiply to 1,500 in 16 years, according to 2021 modeling.

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Escobar’s Hacienda Napoles – and the hippos – have become a local tourist attraction in the years since the king’s death. But the question of how to deal with the hippo issue has pitted some locals against ecologists, with some “enamored of the animals’ charisma and value as a tourist attraction and others concerned about the threat they pose to the environment and local fishing communities,” Nature writes.

Scientists warn that hippos do not have a natural predator in Colombia and are a potential problem for biodiversity because their feces change the composition of rivers and can affect the habitat of manatees and capybaras.

“If we do nothing, the problem will not have a solution in 20 years,” said Nataly Castelblanco Martínez, a Colombian conservation biologist at the Autonomous University of Quintana Roo.

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

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

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“It is possible to do, we already have experience moving hippos in zoos all over the country,” said David Echeverri López, spokesman for Cornare, the local environmental authority that would be responsible for the relocations.

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

In 2022, the government of Colombia declared the cocaine hippos a poisonous invasive species, raising fears among locals that the beloved animals would be exterminated or sterilized.

At the time, Environment Minister Carlos Eduardo Correa said local communities would be consulted on any plans to control hippo populations.

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Álvaro Molina, 57, a local in the area, told The Associated Press that he supported the hippos – despite being attacked by one in the past. He was out fishing one day when he felt a movement under his canoe that spilled into the water.

“The woman attacked me once,” he said, “because she had recently given birth.”

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At the time, Molina said he feared the government meant to harm the hippos. Nature reports that scientists in the country had called for a strict management plan that involved exterminating some hippos and capturing and relocating others.

Many people the AP interviewed in the area said they got along with the hippos and even opposed sterilizing them, let alone killing any.

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“They make laws from a distance. We live with the hippos here and we have never thought of killing them,” said Isabel Romero Jerez, a local conservationist, in 2022. “The hippos are not African now; they are Colombian.”

Hopefully, the current plan to transport about half of the hippos out of South America strikes the right balance for both ecologists and local people.

De los Ríos Morales said the relocation would help control the hippo population and that deporting them is a more humane alternative to eradicating them as an invasive species.

— With files from the Associated Press

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