Researchers recently estimated their numbers will skyrocket to more than 1,400 by 2039 if left alone.

Pablo Escobar, the drug lord who in the early 1980’s turned Colombia into a narco-state, was a man of many tastes. One of those was for exotic animals, and in the 1980s, Escobar smuggled several African hippopotamuses into his Colombian estate, Hacienda Nápoles, along with many other species, to create a private zoo. After seizing the property, authorities sold off the animals but left four hippos.

“It was logistically difficult to move them around, so the authorities just left them there, probably thinking the animals would die,” Nataly Castelblanco-Martínez, a Colombian ecologist working at the University of Quintana Roo in Mexico, told the BBC earlier this year.

Colombia proved to be a “hippo paradise.” While in the hippos’ native Africa, seasonal droughts keep their population tamped down by making them vulnerable to disease and predators in Colombia, where water is plentiful year round, food is abundant and there are no predators big enough to threaten them, the hippos flourished. In the 27 years since Escobar’s death, the group of four has swelled to between 80 and 120. Researchers recently estimated their numbers will skyrocket to more than 1,400 by 2039 if left alone, the Washington Post reports.

By then, the hippos will have done irreversible damage to the environment, and their numbers will be impossible to control, researchers said. Authorities this year have intervened, using a chemical contraceptive to sterilize the animals without the blowback that would come from exterminating what has grown to become “the town pet.” Developed by the U.S. Agriculture Department, the drug GonaCon inhibits production of an animal’s sex hormones, such as estrogen and testosterone, putting it in “a nonreproductive state.” The USDA donated 55 doses of the drug to Colombian wildlife officials.

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