Press Release

Animal Advocates Urge Major Airlines to Prohibit the Transport of ‘Cocaine Hippo’ Hunting Trophies from Colombia

The Animal Legal Defense Fund organizes public pressure campaign urging American, United, and Delta Airlines to broaden trophy hunting bans announced after Cecil the lion was killed


SAN FRANCISCO — Today, the Animal Legal Defense Fund is urging animal advocates to contact leadership at American Airlines, United Airlines, and Delta Airlines requesting that each company to refuse to transport deceased hippos or parts of their bodies out of Colombia by hunters. More than 33,000 emails have been sent from advocates to the three airlines’ leadership in support of the campaign.

The Colombian government recently announced its intention to deem hippos — the descendants of four hippos illegally imported into Colombia in the 1980s by international drug trafficker Pablo Escobar — an invasive species, which would potentially allow them to be hunted. Roughly 100 hippos are at risk of becoming the latest victims in the tragic legacy of Escobar.

Since the hippos first arrived in Colombia, they have established themselves in the Magdalena River in the north-central region of the country. The Colombian government wants to prevent further spread of the non-native species, and in October began providing birth control injections to some of the hippos using a drug provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Nonprofit organizations have offered to assist these efforts by providing additional doses of birth control drugs and logistical and operational support at no cost.

“We remain hopeful the Colombian government will continue its science-based and successful birth control program and not pursue hunting or otherwise killing the hippos,” says Animal Legal Defense Fund Executive Director Stephen Wells. “As they did for the African ‘Big Five’ species in the wake of the killing of Cecil the lion, we ask that American Airlines, United Airlines, and Delta Airlines preemptively prohibit the transport of hippo ‘trophies’ on its flights from Colombia. This will help prevent the unnecessary killing of hippos by foreign hunters hoping to return home with a ‘Cocaine Hippo trophy.’”

Scientists assert that non-surgical sterilization via birth control injection is the best and most humane method of stabilizing and gradually eliminating the population and reports suggest that the efforts have been effective at preventing reproduction. In contrast, numerous studies have confirmed that culling results in a vacuum effect — following the culling of a portion of the population, the remaining intact animals have higher birth rates than before, which simply perpetuates the issue.

Nevertheless, Colombian officials recently announced their intention to deem the hippos an invasive species, which could allow hunting permits to be issued. If Colombian officials allow permits for trophy hunting, there will undoubtedly be international backlash. In 2009, the killing of one of the hippos, named Pepe, prompted widespread condemnation and international media coverage.

In 2015, following the death of Cecil the lion and a public campaign led by the Animal Legal Defense Fund, Delta, United, and American Airlines all announced policies not to transport “trophies” of the African “Big Five,” which includes buffalo, elephants, leopards, lions, and rhinos.

Litigation is pending in Colombian court, filed by Luis Domingo Gómez Maldonado, that seeks to protect the hippos from being killed. In its role as U.S. counsel, the Animal Legal Defense Fund announced the Colombian hippos were the first animals recognized as “interested persons” by a U.S. federal court. A federal judge granted an application pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1782 allowing the Animal Legal Defense Fund to conduct discovery on behalf of the hippos for use in the foreign proceedings. In doing so, the court recognized the hippos as legal persons with respect to that statute.

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