When the Ancient Greeks first laid eyes on the enormous, blubbery, semiaquatic mammals we call hippos, they immediately called the creatures “horses of the river.” Clearly, the Greeks saw some measure of majesty in the creatures native to sub-Saharan Africa.
And in the early 1980s, one of the world’s most infamous criminals fell for the allure of the hippopotamus. He imported a few to his home in Columbia…before accidentally letting them escape into the wild. Some experts worried about how these non-native animals would impact Columbia’s river ecosystems. Others were excited to see what hippos were capable of.
The hippos of northwestern Colombia can be seen splashing about in the riverbanks, seemingly thriving in their habitat, though it’s not their natural one. Things have changed since they were brought to Colombia in the ’80s, and no one foresaw this outcome.
It all started with notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar, who imported four hippos from America to Colombia in 1981. He wanted them for his private zoo at his Hacienda Nápoles near Medellín.
When Escobar was killed in 1993, the other animals that inhabited his property were lugged to different zoos, while his hippos were left to do as they pleased. Spoiler alert: they escaped from the zoo, traveling more than 90 miles away from Hacienda Nápoles.
Ever since then, they’ve been living their best lives in the wild. According to Scientific American, there are now about 80 hippos living in Colombia, and they’re doing a lot more than simply breeding.
FICG.mx / Flickr
Pablo Escobar’s “cocaine hippos” have taken over Colombia’s river ecosystems over the past several decades, and scientists are worried what effects their presence may bring to the environment long-term. But some suspect this could be a positive development.
See, this region hasn’t seen the presence of a large herbivore in quite some time… thousands of years, actually. Many of the friendly big guys that used to roam the planet, munching on leaves and whatnot, went extinct beginning approximately 100,000 years ago, which greatly affected the environment.
According to a research study, without large herbivores roving the Colombian grounds, the soil was starved of nutrients, plant growth changed, and even water flow and availability saw an unexpected shift. Some scientists saw the “cocaine hippos” as a possible savior. Still, they couldn’t be sure.
In a new study, scientists started analyzing the ecological impressions of 427 herbivores weighing a minimum of 22 pounds that existed between 130,000 years ago and today. Their aims were simple.
They were curious to see if feeble ecosystems that once saw the existence of these herbivores could benefit if similar herbivores took their place today. This is where Escobar’s hippos come into play.
Aside from influencing Colombia’s economy by selling cocaine (just kidding), these hippos “present a chimera of multiple extinct species’ trait combinations,” according to authors of the study.
karlins_u / Pixabay
Every way in which these nonnative hippos impact the environment, like what plant species they eat, how far and how often they roam, their digestion process, and the nutrients they excrete into the environment, was once implemented by other large herbivores.
belgianchocolate / Flickr
The big herbivore that existed in this region directly before Escobar’s hippos was the llama Hemiauchenia paradoxa. Said llama went extinct about 11,000 years ago. According to the scientists, this species is the closest extinct equivalent to the modern hippopotamus; though there’s another past herbivore that was also quite similar.
The Latin Store
The extinct semiaquatic hoofed animal, scientifically known as Trigonodops lopesi, shares many similarities with hippos, aside from “fermentation type,” the researchers said. Meaning?
Pic by Seyms Brugger / Caters News
Basically, these modern hippos graze at the riverbanks like the large-headed llama once did, and disburse nutrients through their feces like the hoofed river animal once did, as if they’re a strange hybrid of the two extinct herbivorous mammals.
San Diego Zoo
But it’s currently only a theory that the “cocaine hippos” are a godsend to the Colombian river ecosystems, a theory that some experts deny. It’s possible that these imported hippos actually disrupt the natural balance of Colombian ecosystems.
According to Scientific American, hippos produce exorbitant quantities of dung that deposit loads of carbon into the water and can alter the water’s oxygen levels, and it became a big problem in Kenya.
Researchers explained that Kenyan river runoff that held massive amounts of hippo poop caused 13 mass die-outs of fish, as they suffocated in water that was stripped of its oxygen. That gives “swimming with the fishes” a whole extra layer of morbidity.
In 2017 and 2018, Jonathan Shurin, an ecologist at the University of California, San Diego, and a team of researchers sampled the once hippo-ridden water in Hacienda Nápoles and discovered large quantities of cyanobacteria, which can cause smelly, destructive algae to grow. This could possibly pose a problem in the Colombian wild.
Jonathan B Shurin / ResearchGate
“Our results suggest that ongoing population growth and range expansion by hippos may use a threat to the quality of water resources in the Magdalena Basin,” wrote Jonathan Shurin and his team in a paper published in Ecology, a scientific journal.
The Shurin Lab, UC San Diego
Scientists are clearly still debating whether or not Pablo Escobar’s hippos are a blessing or a curse, but for now, they’re here to stay. However, experts are staying positive: they know what a single creature can do to revitalize an ecosystem.
Yellowstone National Park wasn’t always as rich with animals and nature as it is today. It was never an unsightly spot to explore, of course, but in the ’80s and early ’90s, you wouldn’t have been as awestruck by its beauty.
Before 1926, Yellowstone National Park was full of wolves. They thrived in the park, but within the first few decades of the 1900s, government predator control programs wiped them out entirely. This was a problem.
No one saw another wolf until 1977 — about 50 years later — but, even then, it was a lone wolf or two merely wandering through. Oddly, it was the lack of these wolves that led to the park’s decline.
With no predators to fear, the deer population absolutely exploded. They could eat and overgraze all they wanted without worrying about wolves. Soon, the forests and meadows were barren, but the deer and their ilk kept at it.
As the deer kept grazing, taking all the resources for themselves, the other animals suffered. Creatures that dined on fauna stood no chance in the food race against deer. Animals that ate those animals saw their food supply dwindle.
And the rapid loss of vegetation didn’t just leave the forests bare. Without vegetation keeping soil in place, the rivers that ran through Yellowstone began eroding, which prompted the loss of many animal species who relied on healthy waters to survive.
Yellowstone was struggling, and park employees needed to find a solution. It really all boiled down to the high numbers of deer, they knew, so, in 1995, they hatched a plan.
The deer needed predators, plain and simple, and workers figured this would be the perfect time to reintroduce wolves back into Yellowstone. Packs of gray wolves were released into the park, and hopeful employees prayed it was the answer.
Now, the deer were suddenly thrust back into the predator versus prey world, and even though there were far fewer wolves than deer, the wolves were fearsome hunters. They welcomed the challenge.
Day and night, the battle ensued, and the wolves were the victors nearly every time. This relationship between the wolves and deer is known as “top-down control.”
Top-down control is when predators who sit atop the food chain assist with the regulation of the animals who are beneath them. That’s exactly what happened when the wolves were reintroduced. With deer numbers dwindling, the vegetation flourished.
Aspen and willow trees that hadn’t seen a successful life for decades finally grew back tenfold, and it seemed they were healthier than ever. But, the trees were just the very beginning of the massive change.
The waterways running through the parks began changing, and the regenerated vegetation growing on the riverbeds brought with it a whole new array of life not seen in such a long time.
For the first time in forever, beavers returned to the water. They began constructing their intricate dams, which contributed to a habitat that attracted a variety of reptiles, otters, and muskrats.
Because of the increased vegetation, mice and rabbits thrived, which, in turn, gave the red fox an amazing feasting opportunity. Red fox numbers grew, and still, there was even more happening.
The number of bears also increased. The deer had scoured bushes and ate the same berries the bears enjoyed, but with the berries now finally plentiful again, the bears could eat without a problem.
Through it all, the wolves gained a feathery friend! Ravens are known to follow behind wolves and pick at the remains of whatever they hunt and kill. The four-legged assassins were hard at work, and those ravens were always close behind.
The new lush vegetation not only benefited all of the animals, but it helped drastically slow down, and sometimes completely stop, the erosion of riverbeds. The changes were nothing short of miraculous.
Incredibly, the wolves, although nowhere near as abundant in numbers as the deer they hunted, managed to not only change the ecosystem but the physical geography of Yellowstone National Park. It was a feat that had every park employee — and wolf — howling with joyous pride.
What’s most shocking about this development was how few wolves it took to really change Yellowstone for the better. Still, this reflects a human truth: it only takes a handful of people to make a huge difference.
For instance, the Indian island of Majuli, located within the Brahmaputra river system in Northeast India, boasted over 140 villages and over 150,000 people. Like Yellowstone, the island was in trouble.
Ritu Raj Konwar
See, Majuli is actually the world’s largest river island. These special islands are really just big sand bars that form throughout a riverbed; sometimes the sand bars are so large, people can actually live on them — that’s the case with Majuli.
But, in the heat of a river’s current, the island changes shape and size frequently, which poses a threat to inhabitants. In fact, over the last 70 years, the island has shrunk by more than half it’s original size.
Why the change? Because during the monsoon season large embankments were built up the river to protect larger towns from flooding. This didn’t allow the riverbanks to naturally flood, and therefore directed all excess water towards Majuli.
As the river water eroded the island, space for the 150,000 inhabitants shrank. Since 1991, over 35 villages were washed away, forcing villagers to leave the only home they ever knew.
Indian authorities are concerned that within the next 20 years the entire island of Majuli will be completely submerged and the 140 villages left will be lost forever. If they don’t do something about it now, their fears will become a reality.
The people aren’t the only ones being affected either. Animals are being severely affected by the intense flooding, resulting in major casualties. In fact, the snake population alone has dropped by 45 percent over the last five years!
When the river flooded the island, it would pick up the snakes and carry them downstream. The water dumped the snakes onto tree-less sandbars surrounding Majuli, leaving them exposed to the excessive heat and the harsh Indian sun.
One man in particular, Jadav Payeng from the Mising tribe of Majuli, grew up watching the island shrink. He watched villages wash away, he watched animals torn from their homes, and he watched the villagers grow more and more concerned.
As a young boy, Jadav loved nature, animals (yes, even the snakes), and anything that grew. This impacted him from a very young age and sparked his interest in environmental activism and forestry conservation.
William Douglas McMaster
He was determined to save the island and not just himself, but for his family and tribe. So at the age of 16, he decided to dedicate his life work to do just that: saving Majuli. How he did it was no small feat…
One day in 1979, he started planting trees. He managed to get seeds and made his way to a large, barren area on Majuli. He dug a small hole using a stick, dropped them in the hole, and left the rest to nature.
William Douglas McMaster
He knew that planting one tree wouldn’t do much of anything, so day after day he returned and planted as many trees as he possibly could. His hope was that the trees would grow tall with deep roots that would hold the earth in place and protect the island from erosion.
William Douglas McMaster
After 40 years of consistent work, he’d planted an entire forest on the island, over tens of thousands of trees. This work resulted in a forest that was far larger than the size of New York’s Central Park!
The forest was rightfully dubbed Molai Forest. He said that planting trees became much easier once he could seed from the trees that already exist in his forest. Still, Jadav faced struggles each day…
William Douglas McMaster
With his forest continually growing, animals returned to the area. Elephants, Bengal tigers, and rhinos to name a few now call this area of Majuli home. With the return of animals, Jadav said poachers became a problem once more.
William Douglas McMaster
Jadav said, “All species on this planet are animals, including humans. There are no monsters in nature except for humans. Humans consume everything until there is nothing left.”
William Douglas McMaster
In 2015, he was awarded the Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian honor in India. Additionally, he was recognized by many other local Indian establishments for dedicating his life to the conversation of Majuli.
William Douglas McMaster
Still, Jadav was frustrated by the lack of real help he has received. He suggested planting coconut trees because they’re strong and straight, which would help anchor the soil, and coconut harvesting would boost the economy, all within five years. But sadly no one adopted his proposal.
Jadav refused to give up. He had dreams of seeing Majuli return to the lush green forest it once was before humans so drastically altered it. He believed that he could save the island of Majuli. He stated, “I will continue to plant until my last breath.”
It takes a certain level of self-control to channel desperation into something positive. Yet, in the Indian state of Maharashtra, that’s precisely what Bapurao Tajne set out to do after his wife was embarrassed by a group of upper-caste elites.
Like many societies across the world, India still operates on a caste system, and those in the upper levels hold a lot of power over those below them. This system has oppressed the less fortunate for countless generations.
The upper caste wields so much power that when Bapurao’s wife kneeled beside a well to fetch water for her thirsty family, the elites in the area did more than just refuse her. They also ridiculed and humiliated her.
So what did Bapurao do when he heard about the elites’ treatment of his wife? It would have been easy to do nothing or to lash out in anger against her aggressors…
Instead, he took all of his negative energy and anger, and he channeled it into something useful: he was going to dig a well for his own village to use!
MEA India File / Youtube
Over the past two years, weaker monsoons caused widespread droughts across India. Conditions got so bad that the government sometimes resorted to rationing water.
At first, he wasn’t sure where to dig. Location was important, after all, because, in order for a well to be successful, it needs to be replenished by flowing water.
Bapurao closed his eyes, prayed, and honed in on the first sun-worn spot he saw. This would be the site of his new well. It had to be.
YouTube / myprivatecrusade
For eight hours every day, Bapurao worked his manual labor job, and when he returned home, he picked up a shovel and dug his well. It didn’t matter if he was tired or sore.
He did this second job for six hours each day, digging into the hard soil as much as he could. Of course, it didn’t matter how much hard work he put into the well if he picked out a poor location. Would Bapurao ever find water?
Days passed and Bapurao’s well grew wider and deeper, but still, no water filled it. The villagers — the would-be beneficiaries of Bapurao’s well — told him he was crazy.
Even his wife criticized him for wasting his time, until eventually, Bapurao doubted himself. Nonetheless, he kept digging. He just couldn’t give up.
“It is difficult to explain what I felt in those days,” Bapurao said to The Times of India. “I just wanted to provide water for my whole locality so that we did not have to beg for water from other castes.”
After 40 days of digging, he finally found success! He struck his shovel into the hard, rocky soil, and a small stream of water trickled out.
Perhaps even more astonished at the sight of water were Bapurao’s neighbors. They’d mocked and ridiculed him, but there was water, right before their eyes.
Lucky for them, Bapurao was a forgiving man, and he encouraged everyone to use the well! They were still his neighbors, after all.
As for Bapurao’s wife, whose hardships inspired this whole project? She was a bit ashamed of herself: “I did not help him a bit until he struck water,” she said.
MEA India File / Youtube
But now she’s by her husband’s side, explaining, “It is already 15 feet deep. Bapurao wants to dig five feet further. We are hoping our neighbors will help us.”
News of Bapurao’s well spread like wildfire. Soon enough, news stations and papers poured into town, trying to get a few words from the man with the shovel.
Bapurao even got his own moment in the spotlight with an exclusive interview. You can check it out — with additional information on Bapurao’s deeds — in the video below!