Zoological Foundation of Ecuador staff examine an Andean condor.
Crédito: Courtesy of FZE
Saving the Condor - A Mission Possible
Por Gonzalo Ortiz
The condor appears on Ecuador's national coat of arms and is in danger of extinction. But efforts at nurseries and conservation at different sites across the country intend to reverse the giant bird's endangered status.
QUITO, May 3 (Tierramérica).- Indiscriminate hunting and ecological changes in the Andean highlands dramatically reduced the condor population in Ecuador. Experts say there are likely no more than 50 remaining. A century ago their numbers were in the thousands.
The Andean condor (Vultur gryphus) is the largest flying land bird of the Americas, with its wingspan of up to 3.3 meters and weighing as much as 15 kilograms. The impressive bird appears on the national coats of arms of Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile and Colombia, and is an important symbol in Argentina and Peru.
The other species in the family is the California condor (Gymnogyps californianus), which is slightly smaller.
In Ecuador, government inefficiency and rivalries between environmental groups are blamed for failed efforts in the past to implement coherent policies to protect these majestic birds, whose principal habitat is the entire stretch of the Andes Mountains.
Lack of food in the highland plateaus, unregulated hunting and ecosystems altered by human activities stand as the main threats to the survival of the condor, which nests in the mountains at 3,000 to 5,000 meters above sea level - areas once nearly inaccessible to humans, but now crisscrossed by roads.
Biologist Paúl Tufiño told a local television station in April that in a 2009 census by the Simbioe Foundation, which he heads, the experts had been able to photograph just 27 different condors in the wild.
"What's worse is that they found just four young birds, which suggests that there aren't enough to replace the adult population," Tufiño said.
Now, under an initiative of the Zoological Foundation of Ecuador (FZE for its Spanish initials), which has been quietly working with other entities, another approach is being taken: breeding condors in captivity so that later, after intense campaigns to educate local communities, they can be released into the wild.
This conservation and nursery plan began with the monitoring of the 19 condors already in captivity in Ecuador. They underwent blood, genetic, parasite and hormonal tests, as well as broader physical and X-ray analyses.
"The studies showed us that several have shotgun pellets lodged in their bodies," FZE director Mario García, program promoter, told Tierramérica. "One of them had more than 40 pellets... and another had three 22 caliber bullets. But they are surviving."
At the Quito Zoo, the management of which the city handed over to FZE in 1999, the biologists have succeeded in putting together a breeding pair, which has produced two chicks in the last four years.
García resolved to give one of them to the Condor Park, bird of prey breeding and exhibition site near Otavalo, 70 kilometers north of Quito, to try to create another breeding pair.
For its part, FZE provides technical assistance and has drawn up a manual to improve management practices at the five sites with condors in captivity: the Quito and Baños zoos, the Condor Park, and the Zuleta and Ilitío ranches.
In the bid for successful condor reproduction, "an isolated cage has been built on the plateau of the Zuleta ranch for on promising pair," García said.
Fernando Polanco directs the Galo Plaza Lasso Foundation, named for his grandfather, the late former president of Ecuador (1948-1952), who also served as secretary-general of the Organization of American States from 1968 to 1975 and owned the Zuleta ranch.
The ranch, which covers 2,000 hectares and dates back to 1690, saw its condor population drop, despite the fact that the former president in his time was concerned about their conservation, Polanco told Tierramérica.
Under a family initiative, dead animals were placed in remote areas of the property in an attempt to provide food for the giant birds.
Later, Polanco took up a project of the German biologists Friedeman and Heide Koster, residents of Ecuador, to set up a rescue center in an isolated location of the Zuleta ranch for birds that, under various circumstances, had ended up trapped alive.
It was dubbed the Cundur Huasi, "house of the condor" in the indigenous Quechua language, where eight birds live today, fed and protected by the Galo Plaza Lasso Foundation.
As a result, the condors in captivity began to attract visits from wild condors, which are also provided with food. Soon, the first of those in captivity will begin a regimen of semi-freedom.
Polanco recognizes that the coordination effort with the FZE is key to the condor's future. "Without this initiative we'd still be working in isolation, but today we are confident that we will be able to reproduce condors in captivity and release them in a few years," he said.
That is the objective of the National Andean Condor Working Group, which includes the Environment Ministry, the biology department of the Catholic University of Ecuador, and the condor rescue sites.
The group maintains the Andean Condor Conservation Project, whose goals are to form breeding pairs, track wild condors, and an intense effort at citizen education about conserving this giant bird species.
The group members are in contact with similar initiatives in other South American countries. For example, they have not ruled out the introduction in Ecuador of condors hatched in Argentina.
"We won't see the results for another eight to 10 years. Now that we are working in coordination, it's a matter of perseverance," said Mario García.
* IPS correspondent.