When you think of hippos, you may think of Sub-Saharan Africa and dangerous rivers filled with crocodiles. However, while that may be where hippos are actually native, that isn’t the only place they exist in the wild.
As of the 1990s, wild hippos also thrive in Colombia, South America. Thanks to being illegally shipped in as part of a private zoo, hippos have now come to live in Colombia.
However, instead of doing poorly and at risk of dying off, they have thrived and grown in numbers since then.
Keep reading to learn more about wild hippos in South America, including how they came to be there, why they weren’t sent back to Africa, and what is being done about them.
Are There Hippos in South America?
If you know anything about hippos, you realize that they are native to parts of Africa, and that is about it. So you might scoff if someone told you that there were hippos in South America. But it’s true!
Though hippos are not native to South America, an estimated 80 to 100 hippos live in the wild throughout South America.
Though if you thought they weren’t native, you’d be correct. They were actually brought in by someone who wanted a private zoo. Once released into the wild, they have actually started to grow and thrive.
Which South American Countries Have Wild Hippos?
Currently, Colombia is the only South American country to have wild hippos. However, the range for the wild hippos is ever-expanding, and over the next few generations, they may start spreading to other countries like Ecuador, Peru, and Brazil.
At this moment, hippos are filling a vital ecological niche that no other animal in South America is able to fill. This means that they have little to no predators and are thriving, so it makes sense that they may start to expand here soon without any problems.
How Did Wild Hippos End Up in South America?
Wild hippos were brought into South America in the late 1970s. Four wild hippos were brought over to be part of a private zoo by a man named Pablo Escobar. Escobar was a notorious drug kingpin that imported many animals to use in his private zoo.
These hippos became known as cocaine hippos due to their connection with Escobar. W
When he died in the 1990s, many of the animals in his private zoo were sent back to their respective countries. However, the hippos were too large to transport back and would be too difficult to move, so they were released into the wild instead.
When first brought to South America, there were only four hippos, and now there are likely upwards of 80, though no one knows the exact number.
When Did the First Wild Hippo Show Up in South America?
The exact date that Pablo Escobar brought over the first four wild hippos isn’t known. However, they were brought over sometime in the late 1970s. There, they were kept in his private zoo until 1993, when he died.
While most animals in his zoo were sent to zoos or back to their native countries, it was too much time, money, and weight to transport them anywhere. So instead, they were left to wander his estate.
When Was the First Wild Hippo Born in South America?
No one is quite sure when the first wild hippo was born in South America. They were released, with many people expecting them to pass away or die as they weren’t in their native environment.
No one expected them to grow in population or do as well as they are in the wild.
People started to realize that they were growing because they were checked up on again over a decade later. After their release in 1993, they were checked on again in 2007. That’s when people realized their population was growing.
Instead of four hippos, there were now 16. So after that, they were checked on a little more frequently to see how they were doing.
They were checked on again in 2014, and there were 40. In 2019, there were an estimated 90 to 120. And their range and population only show signs of growth.
Should Wild Hippos Stay in South America?
There is a lot of debate about this exact topic, even among experienced scientists. As we mentioned above, though hippos are not native to anywhere in South America, they have fit into a niche that hasn’t had anything filling it for nearly 11,000 years.
Some scientists believe that allowing hippos to thrive will allow more growth and better habitat quality in the rivers of Colombia. However, not everyone agrees.
Other scientists feel that with no natural predators, they will start to overpopulate the country and grow to invasive levels of population. Some scientists say that at least 30 hippos must be culled a year to manage the population.
It has already become a popular animal trafficking trade in South America, so others think it is a good way to bring money into the country without harming hippos in their proper ecological niche.
Plus, this trafficking, if done right, can help to manage the population as well to prevent the hippos from growing too invasive.
What people ultimately decide to do and how the hippos will fare is still up in the air and very much open for discussion and opinion.
Final Thoughts on Wild Hippos in South America
While wild hippos are not traditionally found in South America, the four left behind after Pablo Escobar’s death have managed to find their ecological niche and thrive. They have grown in numbers substantially since 1993 and look to only grow and expand from here on.
There are a lot of arguments between scientists about what should be done about them, especially whether they can fill an ecological niche or become invasive.
With so much debate about them, nothing is likely to be done any time soon. Only time will tell on how this species does and whether or not they continue to grow in South America with people calling for their culling and trafficking.