Thursday, December 9, 2021

Cocaine hippos and fox hunting

 Michael - Thursday

For reasons of their own, some people seem to be fascinated by keeping wild animals as pets. Generally, the cute (and in most places illegal) lion cubs grow into not so cute and not so tame adults who want lots of food and present a real danger to people. Nevertheless, these are “problem animals.” It’s another step altogether for them to become a problem species. When they do, it generates lots of issues.

A pod if South America

Take the now famous cocaine hippos. In the seventies, Colombian drug king Pablo Escobar kept a private menagerie to amuse himself and his guests. It included four African hippos. Who knows why? Perhaps he just liked them. (Stan and I can appreciate that.) Of course it was illegal, but Escobar wasn’t exactly a stickler for the law.

However, when he died in a shootout 1993 and the zoo was dismantled, the hippos were too large and dangerous to move. So they just…left them there. They didn’t mind. They made themselves at home in the nearby Magdalena River. Now there are more than a hundred of them enjoying the warm weather and lush environment. They eat large quantities of vegetation and favour certain plants threatening biodiversity in the area. Their activities cause erosion on the river border. They are a danger to local farmers. (Thank heavens Escobar didn’t take a fancy to Nile crocodiles.) There are no natural predators. In a few generations there could be thousands of hippos.

The environmental authorities felt they had to stop the problem while they still could, and suggested killing all the hippos. But the local people like them. (Except, I would guess, for the farmer who was charged by one and badly injured.) This may be because hippos are lovable, but I suspect it was because an industry has grown up around them. Tourists take boat trips on the river to spot them, take lots of pictures, enjoy the environment, and spend money. An animal rights group in the US took the issue to court and persuaded a judge to declare the hippos “interested persons” with legal rights in the US. I have no idea what that means in practice since Colombia has no interest in the decisions of US courts. Could the country face blacklisting and sanctions for “human rights” violations?

To keep everyone happy, the local authorities have settled on a drug that renders the hippos infertile. Birth control for hippos. I wonder how that will work out.

At least the hippos were imported by one egotistical criminal with no regard for the consequences. (Although he’d probably point out that he wasn’t the one who left the hippos to run around loose.) History is littered with examples of people introducing species deliberately for a variety of reasons. At best the plan was badly thought through, at worst, no one cared anyway. Let’s not even talk about feral cats that cause environmental havoc throughout the world. 

Let’s take the example of Australia’s foxes. They devastate the local animals and birds who haven’t evolved with efficient, common, predators, and tend to look at the fox with curiosity before it pounces.

Old photo of fox hunting in South Australia

The foxes were brought to Australia in the middle of the nineteenth century for fox hunting. Apparently, the British gentry of the time couldn’t live in the colonies without their traditional sport. Perhaps they thought the hunts would control the population. Probably, they didn’t think at all. There are now more than seven million foxes throughout the Australian mainland.

Then there are the supposedly well-thought-out, ideas. Let’s move on to the twentieth century. Two species of beetle (natives of Australia) had developed a taste for sugar cane, which was becoming an important local crop. Cane toads have a taste for the beetles and have successfully controlled similar pests in their native Americas. Northern Queensland has a similar environment to the American tropical areas where the sugar cane is grown and plenty of juicy beetles, so they tried out the cane toads there. What could go wrong?

Now hordes of large, ugly, poisonous, toads are invading the rest of Australia. The best way to kill one is to put it in your freezer, but don’t get it mixed up with the roast. The natural predators are susceptible to the toads’ poison. Another environmental disaster is on the march…

I guess the moral of all this is complicated. Maybe it’s the Law of Unintended Consequences: the actions of people—and especially of government—always have effects that are unanticipated or unintended. Maybe it’s simply to be careful what you wish for.