BOGOTA— Government officials launched an operation to "rescue" dozens of rare Asian fish from a shopping mall in Colombia's capital city last week only to kill them several days later after realizing they had nowhere to put them.
The mayor's office said on Tuesday that city government officials had decided to sacrifice the fish to prevent them from threatening the local ecosystem.
But the fish flop has not sat well with local residents, who are accusing the mayor's office of acting recklessly and inhumanely. Conservation groups say the mayor could have found an alternate home for the 40 fish instead of resorting to mass slaughter.
“Death doesn't have to be the only alternative after confiscation,” said Camilo Prieto, the director of the conservation group Movimiento Ambientalista. “We made a huge effort to save these fish and the city government never listened to us.”
Officials confiscated the fish during a highly publicized raid on Atlantis Plaza, a luxury shopping mall in Bogota. The sting operation was carried out after Movimiento Ambientalista issued an alert over the poor living conditions of a bamboo shark kept in the mall's display tanks. The city government determined that the mall, which is named after the long lost continent, didn't have proper permits to import or exhibit wild animals.
The fish, according to a statement from the city government, came from as far away as Australia and the Fiji Islands. They included a few clown fish, dragon fish, and the rare Indonesian Cardinal fish.
Prieto says that after the fish were confiscated by the city government, his organization scrambled to find them a new home. The environmentalist says he even convinced the police to fly the fish to a research center in the north of the country that was willing to take the animals.
But his proposed solution went unanswered by city officials. “We were ignored,” Prieto said. “What happened was a disgrace.”
One of the tanks at Atlantis, before the fish were confiscated
The city government said it sacrificed the fish in accordance to international guidelines published by Conservation International which say that species which are not properly taken to a country can be sacrificed as a way to prevent them from contaminating local ecosystems.
But Fabio Arjona, Conservation International's Colombia director, told Fusion that another option outlined in international guidelines is to find an adequate habitat for the confiscated animals.
Fusion asked Bogota's Department of the Environment why the fish weren't put in another, isolated, tank, where they could live out their days, but the office only referred us to the press release that says the fish posed an environmental risk.
Some Colombians are taking to social media to express their outrage.
“Why the hell did you rescue these fish from Atlantis Plaza if you were going to sacrifice them? They were better off there,” wrote one Twitter user.
Another person posted this video clip from the Simpsons. “The Simpsons predicted the mayor's intervention at the mall´s aquarium” The message said.
Prieto says the incident will not discourage his organization from keeping up its fight for animal rights. Next they will take on bullfights, which have been allowed back into Bogota after a five year absence.
Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.