a rewilding experiment that’s now been running for 25 years
July 16, 2019 9:38 AM   Subscribe

In 2007, Colombia became aware of a peculiarly destructive invasive species making its home in its rivers: the hippopotamus. Descendents of a cocaine kingpin's menagerie, the hippos had been quietly breeding unchecked for more than a decade. Now they are spreading. Colombia is unsure how to handle the situation, having attempted culling, castration, and capturing the hippos to limited success. Hippos powerfully influence the environment in their native Africa, leading ecologists to worry about the impact to Colombia's native flora and fauna. A few biologists wonder whether the hippos might provide a replacement for long-extinct megafauna. Previously, previously.
posted by sciatrix (27 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
 
Somewhere Sarah Gailey is planning a field trip ...
posted by kyrademon at 9:48 AM on July 16, 2019 [12 favorites]


So in one of my recent books “ghosts of evolution” they talk about how considering how the America’s used to be home to wild camelids and giant sloths and elephants that perhaps one of the solutions to a few ecological problems might be reintroducing similar species. I don’t think hippos were on the list though- so this should at the very least be interesting.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 9:49 AM on July 16, 2019 [5 favorites]


I know there are serious environmental issues to consider but all I can think of is how this means Sarah Gailey's River of Teeth book is now plausible and how much that delights me. (oops, on preview beaten to it!)
posted by Wretch729 at 9:50 AM on July 16, 2019 [2 favorites]


River of Teeth is based on an alternate universe where the American Hippo Ranch plan actually worked.

I'd heard about the Colombian hippos, but mostly efforts to stop them - interesting that biologists are thinking of ways to semi-integrate them into the ecosystem.
posted by dinty_moore at 9:59 AM on July 16, 2019 [2 favorites]


interesting that biologists are thinking of ways to semi-integrate them into the ecosystem.

If you can’t beat them, let them join your ecosystem?
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 10:08 AM on July 16, 2019 [3 favorites]


I don't get how this is rewilding. Isn't it just another example of introducing an invasive species that puts at risk an ecologic system? Isn't it irresponsible to confuse this with rewilding, which, as I understand it, is all about restoring ecosystems? I guess it is kind of a dodge to insinuate that the ecosystem is being "restored" to some kind of paleolithic fantasy, but that is what it is: fantasy. Any biologist who supports the presence of hippos in South America is acting very badly.
posted by No Robots at 10:10 AM on July 16, 2019 [7 favorites]


Well, my first thought is, "the hell with public outcry, remove these exotics at least from the damn river. Who knows what havoc they will wreak, and whether it can be fixed?" My second thought is, "how could hippos fuck it up any further than humans do everywhere we go?"

People, man.
posted by corvikate at 10:16 AM on July 16, 2019 [5 favorites]


Yeah, the rewilding framing is off, but I think it was just there to connect it to a recent post that was about rewilding. The bottom line is that people are letting a potentially dangerous invasive species get a foothold for profit (Escobar theme park) and out of sentimentality about killing "cute" hippos. Sadly, there is a good likelihood that this will mean ecosystem damage, and, since hippos are incredibly dangerous animals, injury or death to people. By the time sentiment does turn against the hippos (e.g., after they kill someone or start destroying tons of crops) it will probably be much harder or impossible to eradicate them. It will definitely mean killing a lot more cute hippos than dealing with it now or ten years ago.
posted by snofoam at 10:18 AM on July 16, 2019


To clarify, I'm pretty sure that the folks going "uh, let's integrate them into the ecosystem??" are--well, okay, I don't think that there's great evidence that there's been anything like hippos locally before (the fourth article mentions some of the potential candidates, like toxodonts, but there's so few extant relatives of toxodonts it's hard to say what they were and weren't ecologically doing), and so I'm pretty skeptical of the rewilding takes on this one.

It's one thing to go "eh, the monk parakeet populations that are establishing themselves across much of North America might be moving into the Carolina parakeet's niche," and another thing entirely to go "well, they're HERE I guess so... let's pretend they're not ecologically doing much?" It's worth noticing that even the article I have citing that last point about the ecological impacts of the hippos is pretty ambivalent about whether that beneficiality claim is likely to be accurate or not.

One aspect I really wanted to bring up but couldn't find discussion of is the way that so many of the rewilding proposals I've seen come from ecologists who are relatively far removed from the places that their proposed megafauna introductions would be happening in. No one has been hurt or killed by these hippos yet, but they're certainly a massively disruptive species to human health, safety, and use of the areas in which they live--and local Colombians seem to have unusually relaxed relationships with them, as compared to local Africans familiar with hippos. Elephants, another species often proposed for rewilding efforts, are also really dangerous and have outsized impacts on their environments--impacts that make life really difficult for people living in the areas. Yet people generally don't seriously propose, say, reintroducing wisent into the UK, or rewilding the prairies of the Midwestern US. The closest I've seen is the invasive/introduced populations of large antelopes and other ungulates in southern Texas, and that's definitely it's own slightly terrifying kettle of fish--and, again, one that disproportionately hits PoC. Even though nyala and other large antelope are nothing like as aggressive or dangerous to a human as a hippopotamus, that's one hell of a high bar.

(Honestly, if I wanted to delve into a rewilding discussion that I think is much more potentially ecologically sound, I would be digging into a discussion of the feral horses in North America and whether they're moving into the niche which was last occupied by wild horses in North America 10,000 years ago. There's a lot of discussion there I just haven't got my teeth into yet. Or maybe dig into the monk parakeet thing, although I think there's a lot less in the way of ecological opposition to monk parakeets to start with.)
posted by sciatrix at 10:20 AM on July 16, 2019 [12 favorites]


Rewilding (or ecosystem restoration more generally) is more about removing anthropogenic impacts than it is about wild and crazy free for all introductions of invasive species with no clear local historical antecedents.

Personally I am in favor of lethal removal of the hippos, but apparently that ship has sailed so the question is more about how best to integrate them into the existing ecosystem.

It’s an interesting experiment at least.
posted by Dip Flash at 10:30 AM on July 16, 2019 [3 favorites]


Rewilding (or ecosystem restoration more generally) is more about removing anthropogenic impacts

Aren’t hippos notoriously enthusiastic about murder?
posted by schadenfrau at 10:33 AM on July 16, 2019 [16 favorites]


Problem: hunting hippos is expensive and the government has better things to do.

Simple solution: charge wealthy (white) american idiots $100,000 for the chance to shoot one. Maybe mandate that the funds go directly to the local communities or something, possibly payable only upon the verified extinction of the local hippo population (to prevent weird breeding schemes attempting to keep the gravy train rolling).

Hey presto, in five years they're all gone.

...DJTJr would probably bag five just by himself, and then we'd all be treated to a nice bit of Fox News hagiography in the bargain.
posted by aramaic at 10:42 AM on July 16, 2019 [10 favorites]


Aren’t hippos notoriously enthusiastic about murder?

Hippos! They’re just like us!
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 10:50 AM on July 16, 2019 [18 favorites]


River of Teeth is based on an alternate universe where the American Hippo Ranch plan actually worked.

Thanks for leading me down a google hole to this incredible article. I think I'm gonna get a book about Frederick Burnham for my dad this Christmas.
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:54 AM on July 16, 2019 [8 favorites]


No one has been hurt or killed by these hippos yet, but they're certainly a massively disruptive species to human health, safety, and use of the areas in which they live--and local Colombians seem to have unusually relaxed relationships with them, as compared to local Africans familiar with hippos.

I actually wonder if this population of hippos is behaviorally different than African hippos. Not saying they necessarily are, or that hippos will ever not be dangerous, but animal behavior within a given species is much more adaptable to circumstance than we used to believe, and mammals are especially apt to pass down behavioral adaptions to their young because the young learn how to behave by observing their parents. In this new environment, without the existence of crocodiles and lions and so forth to drive aggressive reactions to threats, it's entirely possible that Colombian hippos are less dangerous to humans than their African counterparts.
posted by showbiz_liz at 11:00 AM on July 16, 2019 [6 favorites]


Problem: hunting hippos is expensive and the government has better things to do.

Unfortunately, the reason hunting hippos doesn't work isn't so much "it's way more expensive than other methods of hippo control" and way more "Colombians who may or may not be local think of hippos as friendly zoo critters, saw the photos of the dead hippo, and threw an enormous fit over killing one in 2009, so hunting them is regarded as political suicide and therefore off the table."

There are a lot of reasons that they aren't an easily resolvable problem, and that's one of them: public sentiment matters! Castration is difficult to pull off and expensive; capturing them and sending them to zoos runs into the inconvenient fact that there aren't many zoos that actually want and have the necessary resources to care for a hippo; the African nations where wild hippos exist have politely declined to have the hippos released there, and live capture is also really expensive.
posted by sciatrix at 11:03 AM on July 16, 2019 [2 favorites]


We’re going to need a bigger jaguar.
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:31 AM on July 16, 2019 [25 favorites]


notoriously enthusiastic about murder

If anyone's looking for a fresh account name for the 20th anniversary, I think we found a winner.
posted by Jpfed at 12:34 PM on July 16, 2019 [3 favorites]


These would be decent account names, but really good starship names or possibly horror movie titles:

An Easily Resolvable Problem
The Reason Hunting Hippos Doesn't Work
Other Methods of Hippo Control
Friendly Zoo Critters
Photos of the Dead
Live Capture Is Also Really Expensive
A Massively Disruptive Species
Unusually Relaxed Relationships
Less Dangerous to Humans
In Five Years They're All Gone
Behaviorally Different
Weird Breeding Schemes
Keep the Gravy Train Rolling
Local Communities or Something
posted by Slinga at 2:00 PM on July 16, 2019 [6 favorites]


Castration is difficult to pull off

*winces*
posted by Pastor of Muppets at 2:01 PM on July 16, 2019 [12 favorites]


I mean, Chrysotom did a good job talking about the difficulties of hippo castration in his FPP back in 2014, but much of the problems boil down to the fact that hippos keep their testicles right at the inguinal canal, not descended close to the skin.* That means the damn things move, and when you have to cut through multiple inches of super tough hide to get to them, a slippery testicle is no small barrier to find and remove.

Anyway, it turns out that they're unusually mobile even for an animal with inguinal testicle position. In fact, according to this piece,
Why the hippo has evolved a set of retractable testicles is not exactly known, but it is possibly a defense mechanism. “One of the theories is that when male hippos really fight – not just the display of bravado when they yawn and stretch their mouths open – they will go for the testicles and try and crush them with their teeth,” said Walzer. “If you can destroy your rival’s testicles, then that’s a evolutionary, reproductive advantage.” The ability to yank them more than a foot further into the body is certainly one defence against the probing of hippos' extremely long, self-sharpening teeth.
You're welcome, y'all.

*previously on testicle position across mammals and the many places the monkey, manatee or marsupial might keep his nuts
posted by sciatrix at 3:13 PM on July 16, 2019 [24 favorites]


Oh sciatrix, I’ve missed your posts so much.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 3:35 PM on July 16, 2019 [10 favorites]


Hippos! The new improved Javelina!
posted by a humble nudibranch at 1:05 AM on July 17, 2019


So... theoretically.
If you had a bunch of lush verdant forested land that you wanted to remain forested would it be feasible to release a load of hippos there to make the job of deforestation quite significantly dangerous?

Essentially I'm wondering if there's mileage in direct activist ecowarriors deploying hippo guards to stop deforestation.
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 2:41 AM on July 17, 2019 [1 favorite]


MetaFilter: a slippery testicle is no small barrier to find and remove
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:02 AM on July 17, 2019 [1 favorite]


Simple solution: charge wealthy (white) american idiots $100,000 for the chance to shoot one.

Paging Carl Hiassen.
posted by aspersioncast at 9:18 AM on July 17, 2019 [3 favorites]


Why the hippo has evolved a set of retractable testicles is not exactly known, but it is possibly a defense mechanism

Honestly I’ve always wondered why so many mammals just leave them out. Like, right there. Right in the middle, but exposed.

Might as well put a target on them.
posted by schadenfrau at 10:34 AM on July 17, 2019 [1 favorite]


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