The condor - or Vultur griphus
Credit: Photo Stock.
The Fate of the Condor's Flight
By Humberto Márquez
The world's largest flying bird no longer soars over the Venezuelan mountains. But the condor is reappearing gradually in other Andean countries, thanks to programs for protecting the species and its habitat.
CARACAS, (Tierramérica).- Over the Venezuelan share of the Andes Mountains, one doesn't see condors flying anymore. This species, the largest of the flying birds, has shifted its range to neighboring Colombia, and the few remaining birds that were part of a repopulation program have perished.
Venezuela has archeological and testimonial records proving it was condor (Vultur griphus) habitat until well into the 20th century, which inspired the Bioandina Foundation based in the southwestern part of the country to work on repopulating the area with adult and young condors provided by the zoo in the U.S. city of Cleveland, Ohio.
The foundation inherited the project that had been led by a regional bank gone bankrupt. But Bioandina was unable to prevent the half-dozen released condors from being killed by poachers.
"In at least one of the cases, it was known who fired the shot. But the individual was not punished," said Bioandina activist María Rosa Cuesta.
Using some of the birds protected in zoos, "the foundation decided to focus its efforts on education in order to change people's attitudes towards this species," Cuesta told Tierramérica.
The information available "leads us to think that the Venezuelan population of condors has always been an offshoot of the eastern Colombian population, with individual birds spending certain periods of time in our portion of the Andes," she said.
One of these rare birds was spotted by Luis Quintero, a farmer in Mérida. "It was like a small airplane, black with white edges, the most beautiful I have seen flying from Mifafi mountain, taking advantage of the wind currents towards the south, towards Colombia," Quintero recalled.
In flight, the condor's wings extend more than three meters. Adults reach 1.3 meters tall, and can weigh as much as 14 kg. The condor is not a raptor: it does not hunt, but rather feeds on carrion.
But while condors have apparently disappeared in Venezuela, in Colombia their population is growing little by little. There are currently around 100 of the birds there. Colombia's environment minister, Sandra Suárez, says her country hopes to reach a total of 160 condors within a few years.
In the 1980s, very few condors remained in Colombia, but an action plan, carried out with support from U.S. zoos, "allowed us to establish six repopulation groups in the three branches of the Colombian Andes range," said Miguel Barrera, with the environmental group Corpoboyacá.
There are an estimated 75 condors in northern Ecuador. And two decades ago, experts from the zoo in the U.S. city of Los Angeles calculated that 120 condors would be flying the skies of north and central Peru.
However, it is in Argentina and Chile where the species is most abundant. Argentina's Bioandina Foundation and Chile's Union of Ornithologists have developed protection programs and reintroduction plans for the condor in the portion of the Andes range shared by the two countries, and where as many as 5,000 condors are believed to live.
The species' range has been from Tierra del Fuego, in the extreme south of Argentina and Chile, to the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, in northern Colombia. The condor "is a symbolic link in South America's cultural past," noted Luis Jácome, of Bioandina Argentina.
The condor is found on the national shields of four Andean countries: Bolivia, Chile, Colombia and Ecuador. "El cóndor pasa", a musical piece published in 1933 by Daniel Alomía Robles, is like a second national anthem for Peru. The name of the bird comes from Conquistadors' Spanish rendition of the indigenous Quechua name: "kuntur".
The condor has lived in zoos since the mid-19th century, and the first hatched in captivity was in London in 1846. In the U.S. city of San Diego, the zoo produced a hatchling in 1924, and that of Berlin another in 1925. In the late 20th century, programs were launched to repopulate the South American mountain peaks with birds produced in captivity.
Bolivia is one of the last to sign on to these efforts. "Only now have we begun studies in observation, quantification and habits (of the condors), with sights on a possible reinsertion project," ecologist Boris Ríos, with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), told Tierramérica.
Contrary to some of the local legends, the condor does not have tallons, and does not attack any living being -- because it feeds on carrion, often flying over a dead animal for two days before descending to feed on it. The condor is part of the Cathartidae family, whose name derives from the Greek "kathartes", meaning "one who purifies".
Schoolchildren are moved by the story of the condor, and the fact that they mate for life. The birds reach sexual maturity at eight years, and the females lay eggs only ever two years. The parents take turns incubating the eggs in the nest. Their patience is compensated with a long life: the condor can reach the ripe old age of 75.
In Argentina, Bolivia and Chile they have benefited from the harsh climate, with vast areas of mostly unpopulated mountains, but the birds have been forced out of other regions where the agricultural frontier has expanded.
WCS expert Ríos noted, however, that "sometimes the disappearance of fauna whose cadavers served as food for the condors has been replaced by a cow that has fallen from a cliff or mountainside, especially during the months of drought in Bolivia, from May to September."
But hunters' traps and gunshots, poisoning of the animals that the condors feed on, electric power lines and institutional negligence persist as manmade threats to the survival of these giants of the Andean skies.
* Humberto Márquez is an IPS correspondent.