CleanTech Can Help Solve The Cocaine Hippo Problem
January 21st, 2021 by Jennifer Sensiba
No, there aren’t hippopotamuses doing drugs, but it’s definitely a big headache. Before his imprisonment and death, Pablo Escobar decided it would be cool to import hippos from Africa and put them in his own private zoo in Colombia, and their offspring are causing some big problems today.
Where The Cocaine Hippos Came From
First, let’s talk about the eccentric criminal billionaire’s zoo. For those unfamiliar, Escobar managed to corner the whole cocaine trade into the United States in the 1980s. His cartel still had to constantly battle against rivals to keep control of the market, but at his richest he had tens of billions of dollars. With great wealth came some eccentric desires, including a private zoo with animals from all over the world.
After he was arrested and imprisoned in a special prison he built for himself, he escaped, and was killed by authorities.
Most of his possessions were easy to take care of. Anything valuable was sold, and his exotic animals were relocated to zoos around the world so they’d be cared for. The hippos somehow managed to break out, and given their size and aggressiveness, nobody wanted to round them up. Even if they were somehow tranquilized, their size alone would have proven to be a huge challenge worthy of military transport planes built for tanks.
Besides, like many invasive species, people assumed they wouldn’t survive away from their native environment. And, like other invasive species, they not only survived, but thrived. One male and three females escaped, and today there are around 80 of them. They’re now spread out all over the Magdalena River basin, and are creating problems.
Until a few months ago, I thought of hippos like most people do. They’re cute, they’re big, and they mostly stick to the water, but they’re not as clumsy and slow as people tend to think. They’re fast both in the water and out, and they get incredibly aggressive. When they think anyone, of any size, is a threat to their territory, they’ll gore, stomp, and smash as much as needed to neutralize the threat. Even boats and cars can’t keep people safe from the violence.
Also, they’ll sometimes hunt other animals, including humans. If they want to eat a farmer’s crops, there’s not a lot people can do about it other than stay clear. You don’t get between Mr. Hippo and his food unless you want to get smashed.
Remember the part of the last Jurassic Park movie where the dinosaurs escape into California and we see them approaching suburban areas? Hippos are more closely related to whales than dinosaurs, but they can be nearly as destructive. Nobody has died yet, but a man was seriously injured last year.
Their behavior stinks, but their poop does more than stink. When they defecate in the water, the poop lowers oxygen levels in the rivers and streams. This not only kills fish, but could create problems for farmers if enough of them breed and poop in future years.
There are only 80 of them today, but it won’t be long until there are 160, then 320, then 640. 640 of them will be a huge problem.
Killing or Sterilizing Them Isn’t Working
If Texas’ feral hogs teach us anything, it’s that no matter how many guns you throw at an invasive species problem, that alone won’t solve it. For one, hunting isn’t easy for smaller game, and when the animals are as big as a hippo, it’s that much harder. As they say in Jurassic Park, Life, uh, finds a way.
Also, there’s local resistance to the cullings. In the past and today, people don’t like the idea of the hippos being killed off. So, even if it was possible to bag them all, there just aren’t the votes for it.
A less deadly approach has been to sterilize them so their numbers don’t grow, but that’s even harder than killing them. You can’t perform surgery from hundreds of yards away, and you can’t convince Mr. and Mrs. Hippo to come down to the vet clinic. Knock them out, and you’ll need heavy equipment to move them to a suitable site for surgery.
A few of the animals are now sterilized, but that only put a small dent in the population growth.
Inventors have started to have some success using technology to deal with invasive species.
“Critters are smart — they survive,” said biologist Rob “Goose” Gosnell, head of the US Department of Agriculture’s wildlife services in Guam told CBS News. “Trying to outsmart them is hard to do.”
One example: The CEO of IRobot, the company that makes the Roomba, came up with a special robot vacuum to suck up lionfish. By swimming up, giving them an electric jolt, and pulling them up a tube, the fish’s dangerous venom spikes don’t need to be touched to capture them.
Other inventors are using helicopters to drop poisoned mice for invasive snakes, and underwater tasers to catch carp. They’re also using genetic engineering to wipe out goats on the Galapagos.
Eradicating and/or relocating hippos is definitely an engineering challenge. Their aggressiveness, size, and the remote locations they are in make for big challenges, and the local aversion to killing them off makes it that much more challenging. In Africa, electric fences have helped some, but switching to growing fruit trees instead of crops the hippos want to eat went a long way to better coexistence. Colombian farmers might not want to switch crops, but that could prove to be a good short-term solution as their numbers grow.
To really help with the problem, scientists are probably going to need to gather more data. This could probably be done with radio tracking devices attached to the hippos, but it’s going to take an armored vehicle to safely do that unless they are tranquilized.
Once it’s known where the hippos frequent, it will be a lot easier to find better technological solutions to keeping their numbers from growing. I don’t envy the scientists and inventors who will have to test their solutions on the animals, but Colombia definitely needs their help.
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