Scientists warn that a rapidly growing population of hippopotamuses that were introduced to Colombia decades ago by drug kingpin Pablo Escobar should be culled to preserve the local ecosystem, according to a study published this month.

Researchers warn in a study that hippos, the “largest invasive animal” in the world, are likely to colonize habitats around the country with serious environmental impact, the study published in this month’s Biological Conservation journal found.

Hippos are not native to Colombia and were illegally imported by in the 1980s by Escobar — the narcoterrorist and drug trafficker who was killed in 1994 — for the creation of a private zoo at his Hacienda Nápoles ranch. While many of Escobar’s animals were relocated after his death, the hippos remained because of the difficulty of capturing the large semi-aquatic creatures, the study said.

Last year, the hippos at Hacienda Nápoles were cause for concern because of how their feces affected the water they resided in, according to Smithsonian Magazine. The animal’s excrement fertilized the growth of cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, and threatened the water quality.

“Our models predicted that the worst-case scenario would occur if no management strategies are implemented: the population will continue positively growing, with potential ecologic and socio-economic long-lasting negative effects,” the study said.

Though authorities have made efforts to sterilize the hippos, the animals’ population in Colombia has remained on the rise. Hippos have won the approval from locals, who consider them to be a potential tourist attraction, and are currently protected by environmental law.

The researchers have asked that Colombian authorities reconsider its stance on culling the hippos, which is the most effective way to control hippo population, the study said. The study also urges the need for public education on the risk of hippos as an invasive species and their potential impact on local livelihood.

“This knowledge is essential for guiding public perception to the social and ecological affectations potentially faced by hundreds of thousands of vulnerable rural citizens, in the most important hydrographic basin in Colombia,” the study said.

Hippos are the largest land animal in the world, after elephants, and can weigh up to 8,000 pounds, according to the World Wildlife Foundation. The organization lists hippopotamuses under its “vulnerable” status.

Normally native to Africa, the hippo has been considered vulnerable to habitat loss due to destruction from human behavior. Hippos are also at risk from hunters because they have been excluded from ivory bans, the African Wildlife Foundation says. Ivory poachers have sought hippo teeth, which are tusks that serve as the species’ incisors and canine teeth.

Image: Doha MadaniDoha Madani

Doha Madani is a breaking news reporter for NBC News. 


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