In early February the San Diego Zoo celebrated the birth of a hippo, the ninth calf born at the zoo.
The baby, named Amahle – which means “beautiful one” is Zulu – is indeed a beauty:
She weighs about 100 pounds and as you can see, is dwarfed by her mother, Funani. According to the Zoo’s website, adult female hippos have an average weight of 3,000 pounds, grow to 11 feet in length and are five feet tall at the shoulder.
Amahle is especially precious because the hippopotamus is currently listed as “vulnerable” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species:
The primary threats the animals face are illegal and unregulated hunting for meat, and habitat loss.
And according to my research, a more recent threat is poaching hippos for their teeth. As elephant ivory and rhino horns become increasingly more expensive and policed in Asia, poachers and wildlife sellers have started replacing them with hippo’s teeth, which are made from a material similar to ivory and which can also be used in traditional Chinese medicine, and carved into art objects…
Stories are emerging of pods of hippos being machine-gunned down and all their teeth removed and sent to Asia.
So Amahle – every hippo – is precious.
Except for these:
Perhaps it’s not fair to say these hippos aren’t precious, but they definitely aren’t welcome:
Instead of living in Africa, their native habitat, these hippos are in Columbia, in South America:
How did they get there?
According to a 2019 story from CBS News,
“The story of Colombia’s hippos starts in Villa Napoles, the former estate of Pablo Escobar, who in his heyday had four hippos smuggled there for his private zoo.
“By the 1980s, his cocaine empire made him the wealthiest and most feared drug lord in the world. For Colombia, it was a reign of terror. He’s said to be responsible for some 7,000 deaths.
“Around the time Escobar met his death [in a police shootout] in the early 90s, the government relocated most of the animals to zoos, but not the hippos which were basically allowed to roam free.”
“Roam free” – because hippos are extremely difficult to catch, and it was deemed too dangerous and impractical to move them from the ranch.
“Roam free” – in a place with no natural predators and plenty of food and water.
The article estimated the hippo population at higher than 50.
That number was updated in this more recent article:
“The four hippos living there remained and multiplied over the subsequent years. The population has now expanded to around 80 individuals and spread beyond the confines of Escobar’s estate into the small lakes dotted around the surrounding areas.”
And that’s the problem.
More hippos mean more interactions with people. In Africa, hippos cause more human deaths than any other large animal. So far, there are no known attacks in Colombia.
As for the environment, scientists analyzed water quality and other environmental factors in the areas where the hippos roamed over a period of two years. They found that the animals were altering the chemistry and biology of local lakes:
“At night they feed on land, where they become covered in nutrients and organic material. Then in the daytime they move to the water, taking these materials with them. This can have negative consequences for the aquatic ecosystem.”
“Negative consequences” like their waste impacting the area’s water system, causing excess algae production that can lead to harmful algal blooms similar to red tides. This can harm both humans and animals, including the lakes’ native species.
“Negative consequences” like the concern that hippos are displacing native wildlife, like manatees and giant river turtles:
As the hippo population in Columbia continues to expand, scientists are at a loss for safe and humane solutions.
Killing the animals has proven highly unpopular with the Columbian people, so “We can’t just kill the hippos,” said biologist David Echeverri in the CBS News article. He works with CORNARE, the environmental agency in charge of tracking and managing the hippos in the region. “And the other solution is relocating hippos or sterilizing hippos,” acknowledging that would be an expensive and dangerous process.
And this more recently, from Gina Serna, also with CORNARE:
“It’s urgent. We already have a report of a family of hippopotamuses in the Magdalena river. The Magdalena connects almost all of Colombia, so they could move into any part of the country.”
And from the Newsweek article,
“On one hand, they’re a local tourist attraction and curiosity,” said Jonathan Shurin, an ecology professor at UCSD. “On the other, they pose a real risk to the public and the environment. There’s real public resistance, in Colombia and elsewhere, to removing them by lethal means, but no resources to capture or sterilize them.”
For now, signs warning “Danger, Hippos Present” are posted:
And the Columbian hippo population just keeps growing.
Africa: The continent where hippos belong, and are vulnerable.
Columbia: The country where they don’t belong, and are a threat to people and the environment.
And Amahle, our baby hippo at the San Diego Zoo?
I wish her a long and safe life, despite the havoc we’re wreaking on our planet.
The acronym for that havoc is HIPPO: