Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.
It might be time to cull the world’s largest invasive species: Pablo Escobar’s “cocaine hippos.”
The rapidly reproducing, 4,000-pound (each) beasts have taken over Colombia’s waterways, poisoning wildlife with their toxic urine and feces, scientists say.
They’re not actually carrying cocaine—they’re survivors from the late cocaine kingpin’s luxury estate, Hacienda Napoles, after he smuggled in four of them from a U.S. zoo in the 1980s.
And like most invasive species, they got busy getting busy. With no natural predators and abundant water sources creating a hippo paradise, the population has exploded to 80, and researchers estimate that by 2039 the population will grow to more than 1,400. This hippo fleet has tormented Colombia’s Puerto Triunfo ecosystem—competing with native wildlife and polluting waterways with their toxic poops that fuel algae blooms and reduce oxygen available for native fish.
But they’ve also become very popular with the local people, and quite the tourist attraction—there’s a whole economy surrounding hippo safari tours and now a theme park.
This makes hippo population control tricky. And scientists still can’t agree on what to do with them. Government attempts at management have included castration, but scientists only managed to castrate about one hippo per year, since their internal testes are rather tough to reach.
Other scientists say sterilization won’t be enough. In January, Colombian ecologists made the controversial suggestion in a population study that culling them might be the best hope of reducing the population before it gets impossible to control.
“For me what is necessary here is to protect and preserve the integrity of our ecosystem over an exotic species,” study co-author Nataly Castelblanco-Martínez told VICE News, “even if this exotic species is super charismatic and super cute.”
Castelblanco-Martínez believes if they cull around 30 hippos each year, it might be possible to eradicate the population, which means less competition for native wildlife and cleaner waters.
But any cull is unlikely to happen soon, so long as the public continues to worship these charismatic creatures.