There are feral hippos in Columbia in South America, and tigers running wild in South Africa. Behind these seemingly unnatural situations, there exist, naturally, stories of human intervention.
In the 1980s, four hippos were smuggled into Columbia by the notorious drug baron Pablo Escobar, to be a part of his private zoo. When Escobar was shot dead in 1993, the Columbian government took control of his luxurious estate. They removed most of his zoo animals, transferring them to other zoos, but left the hippos where they were in their pool.
Since then the hippos have multiplied, and some escaped their confines. Now there are dozens living happily in the Magdalena, Columbia’s principal river. They have re-wilded themselves. A few hippos remain at the estate, Hacienda Napoles, which – strange as it seems – has since become a theme park.
What to do about the hippos? Some ecologists say they must be removed from the wild, as they will modify the habitat, and possibly displace native species such as manatees. Others say nah, leave them there, as they offer ecosystem services that were once provided by now-extinct megafauna. Plus, they have become something of a tourist attraction.
One thing is certain – the longer the hippos remain there in the wild, and the more they multiply, the harder it will be to eradicate them. For now, the Columbian authorities are not doing anything about the feral hippos.
The story of the tigers outside of their natural habitat begins when Li Quan, a Beijing-born Chinese woman, left her high-flying job a the fashion house Gucci, to focus on her first love, wildlife conservation.
She and her husband Stuart Bray came up with the idea of translocating tigers to a protected area in South Africa, as part of a strategy to save them from extinction in Asia. They bought up 17 adjacent sheep farms in the Phillippolis district in the Free State province, and turned them into the Lahou (meaning ‘tiger’ in Chinese) Valley Reserve. They introduced critically endangered and captive-born South China tigers to the reserve, with the intention of re-wilding them, and further down the track, returning them to their natural habitat in China.
By all accounts, the tigers have settled in well, breeding and preying on African antelopes in the reserve such as blesbok. The project started off being controversial, but now seems to have achieved a level of acceptance within the conservation community.
Of course, we in New Zealand are no strangers to direct intervention when it comes to conservation of critically endangered species. The captive breeding programme for the Chatham Islands black robin, and its recovery from a single breeding pair, is an international conservation success story.
The kakapo also appears to be making a comeback, thanks to the hands-on efforts of the DOC staff on the recovery team. Kakapo have had a stellar breeding season in 2019, with 74 chicks alive. Only a handful of the chicks are in the wild – the rest in a captive breeding facility in Invercargill. This is a great boost to the overall population of kakapo of only 147 birds. There are amazing, heart-warming pictures of the chicks on the Kakapo Recovery Facebook page, and more stories about exactly what the recovery team is doing to help the kakapo on their way.
There’s a moral in the story of the tigers and the kakapo. It goes to show that when a species is down to critically endangered levels, the only way forward is with direct human intervention. We simply can’t leave nature to run its course.
The bottom line is, we can make a difference; and for these two species in particular, extinction it seems, has for now been averted.