Hippos of Colombia

An unintended consequence of the drug trade.

Photo by SLT

No time for a long post so why not note this, via Nature, Colombia’s ‘cocaine hippo’ population is even bigger than scientists thought.

Colombia’s invasive hippo population is even larger than researchers had thought, according to the most thorough census of the animals conducted yet. Scientists were already concerned about the hippos — considered the largest invasive animal in the world — threatening native plants and animals in the country, and had been calling for drastic measures to reduce the population. The census results have only heightened that fear.

A few years ago, researchers estimated how fast the animals were reproducing, to project that about 98 hippos were living along the country’s Magdalena River and its tributaries in 20201. But the new study, for which a research team counted the animals in person, by drone and using other tracking methods, estimates that there are 181–215 of them residing in Colombia.


Colombia’s ‘cocaine hippos’ are all descendants of three females and one male illegally imported by drug-cartel leader Pablo Escobar. After he died in the 1993, the hippos (Hippopotamus amphibius) escaped from his estate and established themselves in the Magdalena River. Without the natural predators or droughts of their native Africa to keep them in check, the giant herbivores have bred rapidly to form the largest population of the animals outside that continent.

As noted, Escobar was killed in 1993 by Colombian authorities and he was at the height of his powers in the 1980s, when the hippos were imported into Colombia.

I have long known about the hippos, which continue to vex locals and the Colombian government. While it sounds pretty funny, it really is an intriguing example of how complex habitat can matter as well as the unintended consequences of the combination of huge amounts of money and illegality.

FILED UNDER: Crime, Environment, ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    Are there no hippo hunters in Colombia? Should Colombia invite Donny Jr. and Eric–telling them hunting hippos is illegal, of course?

  2. Michael Reynolds says:

    Hippos are extremely dangerous animals. They have effectively no major predators – not crocs, not big cats – and despite being herbivores they will open those big hippo mouths and crunch you like a hot wing.

  3. Kathy says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    My first question is why nothing was done in the early 90s, when it would have been relatively easy and cheap to kill or capture all of them and be done.

    Hippos are very dangerous animals. They’re herbivores, so they won’t go hunting people or cattle or pets. But they are territorial and very aggressive. And they have a huge maw and a terrifying bite force. They may also raid crops.

  4. Matt Bernius says:

    @Michael Reynolds:
    100% this… DO NOT EFF WITH HIPPOS. Especially in the water.

    BTW, with your past, I had to check to see if anyone ever became a Hippo in Animorphs. As I should have expected, I wasn’t the first person to ask this.

    Why did nobody morph Hippo? Would that have been Easy Mode?

    I think you’ll appreciate the response:

    Probably because most American zoos don’t have hippos. And I’m pretty sure Michelle has too much self-respect to let The Gardens get a herd of them. Like, some Gardens manager at some point looked up from his emails and was like “there’s a preserve in Botswana says they’ve got a hippopotamus pod they could send to us for only —” And then Michelle reached over and ever-so-gently pulled his hand off his keyboard, whispering “oh fuck no.”

    source: https://thejakeformerlyknownasprince.tumblr.com/post/663601081681657856/why-did-nobody-morph-hippo-would-that-have-been

    Also, the question came up in a Reddit thread apparently and someone suggested that it would have been “Too violent” for Animorphs to which someone else replied “‘Too violent’ IS Animorphs”–you have great fans!

  5. Mu Yixiao says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    They’re also essentially bullet proof. The caliber/power of gun you need to pierce their hide is quite significant.

    (They also spray their poop–which is just disgusting.)

  6. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Matt Bernius:
    We do have great fans. Watching so many fandoms turn dark and toxic, we have been very gratified that both ANIMORPHS and GONE fans have been almost universally lovely people.

    As for morphing hippos, I refer you to seahorses. Why seahorses? Because an editor suggested them as a morph to which we replied, ”What the fuck is a seahorse going to do? Infiltrate an aquarium?” Same issue with hippos: not much good for concealment, a wee bit obvious.

  7. @Kathy:

    My first question is why nothing was done in the early 90s, when it would have been relatively easy and cheap to kill or capture all of them and be done.

    The easiest answer is to point out that Colombia was very much immersed in both the war on drugs (this would have been the tail end of the Medellin Cartel and the start of the Cali Cartel), to include a good bit of domestic terrorism (including the assassination of three presidential candidates going into the 1990 cycle). Then, of course, a guerrilla war against the FARC and ELN. Indeed, likely still the M19 and the EPL when the hippos escaped (I would have to nail down the dates).

    1990 was also a year of a new constitutional assembly and 1991 when a new constitution was deployed.

    The Colombian state’s priority list had hippo capture waaaaay down at the bottom.

  8. Mu Yixiao says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    The Colombian state’s priority list had hippo capture waaaaay down at the bottom.

    Only because of the successful bribes coming from lobbyists for the hippo-industrial complex.

  9. @Mu Yixiao: Well, that goes without saying.

  10. BugManDan says:

    When I read the Nature headline, I didn’t register Nature and thought a cocaine hippo must be a new kind of drug mule.

  11. Kathy says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I get that. But the investment in time and money at the time would have hardly been noticeable.

  12. Raoul says:

    After Pepe (name of hippo) was hunted down a few years back, and the body of the beast appeared in all the front pages of Colombia newspapers, the legislature, with overwhelming popular support, passed a law preventing the hunting of hippos. Source Nat. Geo. docs.

  13. Kingdaddy says:

    The connection to St. Augustine of Hippo is unclear.

  14. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Raoul: All the more reason Don Jr. and Eric will be interested. I was thinking we’d need that for a pretext. The fact that it’s an actual thing makes it a better pitch point. They shouldn’t be letting people in third world ****holes tell THEM what to do, amirite?

  15. Ken_L says:

    Australia has feral pigs, buffaloes, camels, horses, carp, cats, toads, rabbits and numerous other destructive introduced animals. I’m sure hippos are only a matter of time.