Colombia : Officials say grazing giants threaten wildlife, humans in Colombia.

More than 100 African hippos descended from fewer than a handful imported as exotic pets by drug lord Pablo Escobar, face an uncertain future in Colombia.

After the government added Escobar's so-called ''cocaine'' hippos Friday to a list of ''introduced, invasive species,'' experts say killing them maybe the only viable option.

From the few individuals once housed at Escobar's Hacienda Napoles estate, the hippos' numbers have ballooned, with 130 now roaming free north of Bogota around the Magdalena River.

Officials say the grazing giants, endemic to sub-Saharan Africa, threaten local wildlife and humans living along the river, whom they have already come to conflict with.

Attempts have been made to sterilize the animals, which can weigh as much as 1.8 tons, but doing so is expensive and difficult. ''Sacrifice [culling] remains on the table,'' said David Echverri, head of the Cornate state environmental agency in charge of the sterilisation effort.

''It is a necessary option. It could be the only way to stop the problem from getting worse,'' he told AFP.

Escobar, once head of the deadly Medellin Cartel, became one of the richest men on the planet, according to Forbes, thanks to the drug trafficking empire he built.

With his wealth he built a menagerie, acquiring Hippos, Flamingos, giraffes, zebras and Kangaroos for his ranch.

After he was shot dead by the police in 1993, all but the hippopotamuses were sold to zoos. The semi-aquatic ungulates were left to roam Escobar's estate and continued breeding.

They are now believed to be the largest so-called ''bloat'' of hippopotamuses outside of Africa.

The creatures have long been a headache for authorities faced with a vocal anti-culling campaign.

Last Friday, the government officially declared the hippos an invasive species and announced it had a plan to ''manage'' their population, which studies have suggested could quadruple in 10 years.

Former environment minister Manuel Rodriguez has urged the government to use any means, including a hunt on the animals.

''Obviously there are animal activists opposed to this, but what is the alternative?'' he said.

To date, Comare has managed to surgically sterilize 11 hippos and dart another 40 with contraceptives. The effort has cost more than $100,000, but has failed to stop the hippo numbers from swelling.

''Everything with hippos is complex, expensive and dangerous,'' Echeverri mentioned. [ AFP ]


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