Colombian authorities have considered both culling and neutering the animals in an attempt to stem the population growing further. However, the US has intervened and stated that the animals are now recognized by an American court as “interested persons” following a decision that is believed to be the first of its kind in the United States.
The Animal Legal Defence Fund, which sought the interested persons designation for the “cocaine hippos,” called the ruling by a judge in the US District Court for the Southern District of Ohio a “critical milestone” in its larger effort to have the American legal system recognize “enforceable rights” for animals.
Legal analysts say the U.S. court order has no direct effect in Colombia. It remains to be seen what influence the ruling might have on a lawsuit there seeking to safeguard the hippos’ well-being.
Ariel Flint, a staff attorney for the Animal Legal Defence Fund, said the federal court’s order is “narrow,” in that its purpose is to allow two US wildlife experts to be deposed in support of the legal proceedings in Colombia.
But their testimony is “critical in ensuring that the hippos are sterilized in a humane way, and in proving that sterilization is an effective option for any hippos that may yet be euthanized,” he wrote in an email to The Washington Post.
Mr Escobar smuggled several hippos onto his estate in the 1980s.
Their wild descendants now roam the wetlands north of Bogotá, where they are the largest invasive species on the planet.
After his death in 1993, the hippos were left to their own devices.
They lived along the Magdalena River and ballooned to the current population of as many as 120.
And the situation could get even worse.
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The introduction of such a significant species to an already-finely-balanced ecosystem is apparently wreaking havoc on local biodiversity.
The animals can apparently cause greater amounts of toxic algae, and their faeces has been killing fish species too.
And they also pose a threat to humans: in Africa, hippos kill up to 500 people a year.
Although there have not yet been any recorded deaths by hippos in Colombia, as numbers increase, so does the risk of them encountering humans.
The case of granting such a status is not the first of its kind.
In 2018, a Colombian court granted legal personhood status to part of the Amazon rainforest in a landmark decision that urged the government to put an end to the region’s deforestation crisis.
As for the hippos in Columbia, the problem appears to be long-term in nature as the animals can easily live up to 50 years old.