Arbitrarily assigned conservation status protects owl monkeys, but designates hippos Public Enemy Numero Uno.
CALI, Colombia––What a difference 15 million years makes!
The most distant ancestors of Colombian owl monkeys, a subspecies of night monkey, are believed to have floated across the then much narrower South Atlantic ocean circa 30 million years ago on logs or mats of drifting vegetation.
Scrambling ashore to occupy a whole new continent, they established themselves long enough ago to become a protected species in Colombia.
That status recently got more than 100 squirrel monkeys out of allegedly abusive conditions at the Caucaseco Scientific Research Center and the Malaria Vaccine & Development Center in Cali, Colombia, directed by wife-and-husband scientists Myriam Arévalo-Herrera and Sócrates Herrera.
Hippos slated to get the boot
An estimated 140 hippos, meanwhile, deemed “invasive” by Colombian authorities under pressure from U.S. funders, are at risk of getting the bum’s rush, if the Colombian government can catch them, and at possible risk of being shot if they cannot be caught, even though hippos are listed as a vulnerable species by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
That means hippos are believed to be at a high risk of extinction in the wild.
Owl monkeys are officially welcome in Colombia, while hippos are not, essentially because ancient hippos meandered east instead of west, crossing the present-day Arabian Sea into Asia instead of what is now South Atlantic ocean into South America.
Anthracotherium, generally believed to be the earliest identifiable ancestor of the hippopotamus, had already existed in eastern Africa for 30 million years when owl monkeys emerged in the fossil record.
But modern hippos did not differentiate themselves from the relatives they have in common with the great baleen whales until about 10 million years after owl monkeys got to Colombia.
The first modern hippos as we know hippos today appeared in the fossil record about 15 million years ago. By the time they waddled and paddled their way to riverine estuaries on the west side of Africa, the South Atlantic ocean was apparently too wide for them to cross.
Had any hippos managed to cross the South Atlantic, they would have found perfect hippo habitat in the Amazonian delta, and upstream in the Amazon basin.
Pablo Escobar aided evolution
Hippos, however, did not reach the South American wild until one male and three females were imported to Colombia by the cocaine baron Pablo Escobar, 1949-1993.
Those four hippos broke out of Escobar’s private zoo after Escobar was fatally shot by Colombian authorities who were trying to capture him and return him to prison, after he had escaped.
Remaining on the run for 30 years, despite repeated attempts to hunt them and/or capture them, the descendants of Escobar’s hippos are now the biggest hippo herd outside of Africa, and have filled an ecological niche for large herbivores left vacant since the human invasion of South America less than 15,000 years ago resulted in the extinction of at least 35 very large megafauna.
28.2 million cattle versus 140 “river horses”
Upstart humans, a species barely two million years old, have now slated the Colombian hippos for eviction or extermination despite a paucity of evidence that they are actually doing any ecological harm.
Do the hippos, whose full species name means “river horse,” eat lots of native vegetation and poop in the swamps?
Of course they do, but so do the 28.2 million cattle who have made Colombia the sixth largest cattle-exporting nation. And cattle only reached Colombia less than 500 years ago.
(See also Good days in court for chickens, gamecocks, Wisconsin wolves, & feral hippos, Aussie prof’s video challenges “invasion biologists” on their own turf, and Hippos out of water: easy trophy targets.)
PETA stops owl monkey experiments
“No more taxpayer dollars will go to fund the Caucaseco Scientific Research Center and the Malaria Vaccine and Development Center,” announced Keith Brown of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals [PETA] in a July 5, 2023 media release.
“As of June 29, 2023 according to National Institutes of Health correspondence PETA has received, those two organizations became ineligible to receive NIH grants in the future,” Brown added.
“The funding cancellation by NIH means it is unlikely that Caucaseco will ever reopen its doors or torment any other animals in pointless experiments,” Brown assessed, although the prominence of Myriam Arévalo-Herrera and Sócrates Herrera may open access to funding for their studies from other sources.
Owl monkeys sent to rescue
The National Institutes of Health, Brown said, “lagged far behind Colombian authorities, who, beginning months ago, cracked down on Caucaseco, stopping all animal experiments there, closing the facilities, and seizing nearly 300 animals, many of whom suffered from maladies both old and new.”
Among the animals impounded were the 100-plus owl monkeys, who were reportedly transferred to a wildlife rescue and rehabilitation center.
“A Colombian regional environmental agency filed formal charges against Caucaseco for lacking permits to experiment on monkeys and to capture squirrel monkeys, causing ‘harm to wildlife,’ and for other violations,” Brown continued.
Escobar was not the only crook in Colombia
“The Colombian comptroller general audited the owners’ contracts, found several irregularities, and requested a refund of at least $157,000,” Brown said.
“Colombian auditors have also found irregularities in the organization’s books. Further charges may be on the way,” Brown suggested.
Despite the Colombian actions, the National Institutes of Health, having steered $17.6 million to the Caucaseco Scientific Research Center and the Malaria Vaccine & Development Center since 2003, “sat on its hands,” Brown charged.
“PETA repeatedly called for the NIH to dry up its funding, cancel its contracts, and recoup the money already given to the organizations,” Brown said. “Even recently, the NIH appeared to be backing Caucaseco, trying to help it continue operations and receive funding in another country.
The Caucaseco Scientific Research Center and the Malaria Vaccine & Development Center was currently operating on a $600,000 three-year grant from the NIH, which was to expire in 2023.
Also, a $319,000 NIH grant made in 2022 was reportedly up for renewal.
Falsified ethics approvals
“The practices of the center in Cali first came to the attention of Colombian authorities in January 2023,” reported Science news intern Phie Jacobs, “following an investigation by [Magnolia Martinez of] People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. According to PETA, the rescued animals had been confined to rusted, feces-encrusted cages, with multiple monkeys suffering from missing eyes, infections, and other injuries.
“PETA also alleged,” Jacobs recounted, “that the facility falsified ethics approvals for both human and animal studies that, according to Retraction Watch, could affect more than 20 papers published in major scientific journals.
“The controversy coincided,” wrote Jacobs, “with a March 2023 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office calling into question NIH oversight of animal care at foreign facilities. The report noted that NIH regularly failed to conduct foreign site visits, often relying on a facility’s word that it was complying with agency rules for animal welfare.”
International Primate Protection League won similar case in 2012
The Caucaseco Scientific Research Center and the Malaria Vaccine & Development Center shutdown came 11 years to the day after Angela Maldonado of the Colombian organization Fundación Entropika successfully sued malaria researcher Manuel Elkin Patarroyo, with International Primate Protection League [IPPL] support.
“On July 5, 2012,” the International Primate Protection League reported, “the Administrative Court of Cundinamarca in Colombia revoked the permits of Patarroyo. These permits, originally valid until 2015, would have allowed Patarroyo to acquire as many as 4,000 night monkeys for his jungle laboratory, the Institute of Immunology Foundation of Colombia according to an article in El Tiempo,” the 112-year-old largest circulation newspaper in Colombia.
“Angela has been studying New World monkeys in the wild for nearly 15 years,” the International Primate Protection League said. “She was shocked when she discovered that lab officials had persuaded the poor native people of Peru and Brazil—just across the Amazon River from Patarroyo’s facility—to capture night monkeys and transport them across the unguarded border,” in alleged violation of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species [CITES].”
Sick monkeys were returned to the jungle
Angela Maldonado and Fundación Entropika also, IPPL recounted, “uncovered evidence that lab workers would release many of their experimental animals—sick and weak—into the Colombian jungle when they were finished with them. No rehabilitation plan, no environmental controls, nothing, according to Angela.
“Judge Claudia Elizabeth Lozzi Moreno ruled that the Colombian Ministry of Environment and the Corporation for the Sustainable Development of Southern Amazonia, which were responsible for monitoring the Institute of Immunology Foundation of Colombia, had instead colluded with the lab in this inhumane and ecologically destructive travesty—a pattern, she said, that went back to 1984,” IPPL summarized.
Hippos to be moved to northern Mexico?
Meanwhile back in the Antioquia swamps up the Magdalena river, the Colombian environment ministry told Agence France Press and the Guardian in May 2023 that 10 hippos would be transferred to the privately owned 25-acre Ostok Sanctuary in Sinaloa, northern Mexico, hardly a suitable habitat, while 60 would be sent to an as-yet unnamed facility in India.
There are, in truth, no existing facilities in India capable of holding 60 hippos. Even if there were, there would be a significant risk of hippos escaping into riverine estuarial habitat as congenial to hippos as Colombia.
“The whole operation should cost around $3.5 million,” projected Ostok Sanctuary owner Ernesto Zazueta.
Hippos outbreed extirpation efforts
But first the $3.5 million must be raised, a questionable prospect, and then capturing adult hippos from the wild is a rarely accomplished feat. Transporting them would also be no easy feat.
Reported The Guardian, “Zazueta and the local governor of the Colombian region that is home to the hippos say they plan to lure the animals with bait into pens, where they will remain confined before being put in special crates for the transfer.
“In 2009,” recalled The Guardian, the Colombian government “tried culling the animals but stopped after a graphic photo caused national outrage. A sterilization program remains in place but the hippos breed faster than local experts can find, catch and castrate them.”
Hippos may yet become as established in Amazonia as owl monkeys, and less vulnerable to exploitation.