For 5,000 years or more the condor has soared above the Andes, a mystic being in the imaginations and spiritual life of the people. Today, this majestic black vulture – whose emblem adorns the insignia of six South American nations, is under threat.

    “At the heart of the problem,” says Associate Laureate Luis Jácome, Director of the Andean Condor Conservation Project (PCCA) “is that condors are exceptionally slow to breed; reproduction in condors is a protracted business. In the wild, they do not start reproducing until eight years old and they are not prolific breeders. A mating pair produces only a single chick every other year and both parents have to care for their young for 12 months.”

    The PCCA was founded in 1991 as a joint Argentina/Chile initiative to save this iconic species. Since 2007, Latin America’s major zoos have collaborated in a breeding programme that assembles suitable breeding pairs of condors and ensures artificial incubation of their eggs at the Buenos Aires Zoo.

    Avoiding contact

    “Because the main aim is to return the condors to the wild, we take great care to avoid contact with humans,” Jácome says, explaining that chicks are raised in isolation and fed using latex glove puppets made to look like adult condors. After a few months, the chicks are socialized with wild condors until they grow their juvenile plumage at about six months.

    Individual condors may live as long as 70 years, but many fall prey to hunters, poisoning by farmers and collisions with power lines. The rescue and rehabilitation of injured birds is therefore a second vital component in the project.

    The Andean Condor Rescue Center (CRCA), created in 2002, is also located at the Buenos Aires Zoo. Condors arrive at the centre suffering from a variety of injuries from gunshot wounds, to poisoning – typically from ingesting poisoned baits or lead shot from feeding on carrion left by human hunters. The centre receives around 14 condors a year and over the past nine years has rescued 136 birds from Argentina. In addition, the breeding programme has reared 51 chicks, culminating in the release of a total of 159 birds.

    Joyous moments

    This led to the reintroduction of the birds to the Atlantic coast of Patagonia and the Sierra Paileman, where they became locally extinct 100 years ago. Jácome recalls both the birds’ release and then returning subsequently to find they had reared their own chicks, as the two most joyous moments in the life of the project. “Since 2003, 48 condors have been released in Patagonia alone,” he says, adding that the liberated birds are now expanding their range, with some individuals moving more than 600 km from their original roosts.

    Releasing condors into the wild takes a great deal of consideration. First a suitable reintroduction site needs to be found, followed by an education campaign among the local people and post-release monitoring of the birds. Each release is accompanied by ceremonies conducted by indigenous Andean communities in their native language.

    Spiritual dimensions

    “The cultural and spiritual dimensions have become a crucial part of our work,” says Jácome, who became a Rolex Associate Laureate in 1996. “It is a humbling experience for me as a scientist to see the depth of the spiritual connection between these communities and the birds they honour. ”Tapping into cultural roots in this way also serves to promote education and awareness about the birds and to encourage local people to support their conservation.

    The primary threat to the Andean condor remains the widespread illegal use of poison baits by farmers attempting to control the carnivores which prey on their flocks, from which the bird is often an unintended casualty. “Our educational activities and outreach to indigenous people is helping to change not only the relationship between humans and the condor, but also our relationship with all forms of life,” he says.

    “People now respect the condor again. There are even some farmers who slaughter their livestock in order to have condors flying over their fields because, according to traditional wisdom, this brings blessings.” Native communities in the high valleys of Somuncura on the Atlantic coast have even revived some of their traditional condor ceremonies since the birds began to reappear in their skies after a century of absence.

    Solar-powered transmitters

    To track the birds after release, Jácome’s team uses solar-powered transmitters fastened to their wings which are followed by satellite. “The transmitters cost around $4,000 each, so we cannot afford to put them on all the birds, but we have enough to get a good picture.” The transmitters are about the size of an ink jet cartridge and are accompanied by a saucer-sized identification number, but the birds do not seem to mind them. “The first bird we released in 1996 still has its tag and is still transmitting data,” Jácome says proudly. Thanks to this technology, it is possible to monitor more than 388,000 square kilometres of land and gain insights into the flight capacity of the birds. It is also possible to identify roosting sites, where as many as 124 condors have been found to gather.

    Without reliable data on the size and distribution of the total condor population (now thought to number a few thousand) it is difficult to gauge the impact the project is having, but Jácome says the anecdotal indications are all positive. As for the future, he is cautiously hopeful. “The prospects for the Andean Condor depend very much on the activities of man,” he says. “If we can address issues such as climate change, pollution and habitat destruction, both we and the condors can expect to thrive.”

    Aerial athletes of the Andes

    The Andean Condor (Vultur gryphus) has a maximum wingspan of 3.2 m, making it one of the largest birds in the world. With their striking black plumage, clerical ruff of white feathers and bald head (crested in the males), they are an awe-inspiring sight as they ride the thermals above the Andes mountains and along the adjacent Pacific and Atlantic coasts of South America. Lacking a strong sternum and corresponding powerful flight muscles, and weighing up to 15 kilos, condors depend on thermals and updrafts of wind in the mountains and over the deserts and can glide as far as 300 km in a day.

    The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies their status as ‘near threatened’ and the bird is now extremely rare in the northern part of its range, in Venezuela and Colombia.

    The condors’ disappearance would be a major blow for the upland and coastal ecosystems of which they are part. Condors are vultures, preferring to feed on the carcasses of large animals. Along the coasts, they feed on dead marine animals such as seals or fish. They thus perform an important function as nature’s clean-up team.

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    Learn more about Norberto Luis Jácome

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