Argentine biologist and 1996 Associate Laureate Norberto Luis Jácome has woven together high technology and indigenous peoples’ appreciation of nature to bring the Andean condor back from near extinction. One of the world’s biggest birds, it once soared above the Andes. Today, thanks to the determined efforts of Jácome and an international network of supporters, the Andean condor is again floating on thermal updrafts from Venezuela to Tierra del Fuego.
Return of a majestic bird
When Charles Darwin sailed around South America in the 1830s, he noted in his journals sightings of the majestic Andean condor that soared across the sky along the coasts of Argentina, high above the whales in the cold Atlantic waters. Yet, as the years passed, the condors began to disappear, victims of human ignorance about their key role in the region’s ecology. Late in the 20th century, the skies seemed eerily empty. Today, however, thanks to the work of an enterprising Argentinian biologist, the condor has come back from the brink of extinction and once again circles over the rugged peaks of South America’s mountains.
Norberto Luis Jácome, director of the Andean Condor Conservation Project since 1991, reintroduced the endangered condors into the Andes in 1997. The biologist “borrowed” eggs from condor nests in captivity and raised the chicks at Buenos Aires Zoo, but isolated from humans. He also created, together with the Temaiken and Bioandina foundations, the Andean Condor Rescue Center, to rehabilitate wild condors. Jácome’s goal in both projects is to release the condors into areas where they have long been considered extinct.
Helping various species
Jácome also works in his laboratory at the zoo — where he is technical director — building up a genetic bank for storing the reproductive material of other endangered species. While working to save many of these species, he is particularly fond of the Andean condor, whose three-metre wingspan makes it one of the biggest birds on earth.
For his groundbreaking work to preserve threatened species, Jácome was selected as an Associate Laureate in the 1996 Rolex Awards for Enterprise. The recognition that came with the Award made possible the acceleration of the condor programme. “The support of Rolex for the project in 1996 helped us gain the trust of others, and from there on the results of the project itself have helped us build confidence with very prestigious institutions,” he says. In recent years the condor-release programme has received support from donors around the globe, including the Wildlife Conservation Society, the ZCOG Foundation, the Vienna Zoo, the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and several technology corporations.
Rising into the air
By late 2005, Jácome had released 50 birds, including some in Venezuela and along the coast of Argentina where Darwin admired this majestic species.
Utilising the global positioning system and tiny solar-powered transmitters fastened to the wings of released birds, Jácome’s team tracks their flight patterns and identifies locations where the birds stop to roost, thus making possible the development of a comprehensive, region-wide strategy to protect their environment.
But Jácome insists that there is far more to protecting the birds than space-age technology. During the latest releases, the condors were coaxed into the air by an indigenous spiritual leader playing a wooden flute.
Technology and tradition
“The condor project has two parts, as if it were the two wings of the condor,” Jácome says. “One wing has to do with the science, with all the satellite data. But of similar importance is the other wing, which is the Andean ‘cosmovision’. For thousands of years, the condor was an honoured animal for all the original communities in South America. They have seen in the condor a sacred link between human beings and God. Andean men and women don’t speak directly to God. They speak to the condor and the condor carries away their prayer.”
Following the lead of indigenous people in honouring the condor is a critical step to ensuring the birds’ survival, Jácome explains. “It’s important for us to work with these traditions, and we’ll succeed if we can in some manner ensure that people see the difference between conservation and honouring. If you’re working to conserve something, you place yourself a bit above what you’re conserving – there are just a few animals left, and you, in all your power, are going to conserve them. But if you’re working to honour a life form, you place yourself a bit below what you’re honouring. These traditions demonstrate to us that if we can honour a species, conservation will take care of itself.”Learn more about Norberto Luis Jácome