Play a word association game using "Pablo Escobar" to start, and you'll likely hear such terms as "drug lord," "cocaine," and "murderer." "Hippos" may also come up if you're playing with anyone from Colombia, where the animals have surged in number since Escobar smuggled a handful of hippos into his Hacienda Napoles estate in the '80s. Now, wildlife officials there have started sterilizing the invasive species in an attempt to keep the population down before it becomes unmanageable, reports the Washington Post.
When authorities seized Escobar's property after he was fatally gunned down in 1993, they found four of his "cocaine hippos" there, and it seemed unwieldy to transport them—so officials simply left them on the property, likely figuring they'd die, a conservation biologist for Mexico's University of Quintana Roo told the BBC in February. But that's not what happened. Instead, four hippos got busy and grew their numbers to between 80 and 120, at last count. Scientists say it's only going to get exponentially worse, with possibly more than 1,400 hippos by 2039 if left unchecked.
It's a "paradise" for hippos in Colombia, where there aren't the droughts and predators prevalent in their native Africa, and food is plentiful, the Post notes. It's not a paradise for the locals or the environment, however: Ecologists say the hippos displace other species, like the manatee, per the BBC, while hippo waste produces nutrients that end up spurring algae blooms in water, which in turn kills off fish. The creatures have also attacked people, and a recent study cited by the Guardian notes that researchers are worried about disease spread from hippos to humans.
Locals have grown fond of the hippos, however, and a tourism industry of sorts has grown up around them, complete with safari tours and hippo-themed souvenirs. "The hippopotamus is the town pet," one resident said in 2018, per the Post. Faced with pushback on scientists' recommendations that the hippos be euthanized, wildlife officials instead opted for chemical sterilization, which is cheaper and quicker than trying to track the hippos down for a more traditional castration. So far, 24 hippos have been sterilized with the USDA-developed GonaCon, a contraceptive that inhibits sex hormone production. (Read more Colombia stories.)