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Saving South America's emblematic condor

Revered as a sacred go-between with the gods, the carnivorous scavengers are making a comeback.

SANTIAGO, Chile — Patriotic emblems are fast becoming the only place in northern South America to find the mighty condor.

In the less populated Andean heights further south, however, the gigantic bird has a chance to make a comeback. A wildlife recovery project between Chile and Argentina is helping to breed, rehabilitate and release condors into the wild.

The largest land birds of flight in the world, condors were treated with reverence in the Andean territories for centuries before the Spanish conquest. Native South Americans regarded them as sacred go-betweens, connecting man with his gods. They are as emblematic in South America as the bald eagle is in North America.

On Ecuador's seal, the spread-winged condor represents power, grandeur and pride. On Colombia's, it looks to the right to symbolize legitimacy. Atop the Bolivian seal, another spread-winged condor symbolizes the country's search for limitless horizons.

“We don’t want to raise animals to exchange with other zoos for exotic species. We don’t want pink elephants; we are only trying to save our native species from extinction,” said Mauricio Fabry, a veterinarian and director of Santiago’s Metropolitan Zoo. One hundred condors have been released since 2000, when the Andean condor bi-national project began.

Weak, wounded or sick birds are first brought to the Metropolitan Zoo in Santiago. There they are weighed, measured, diagnosed, treated and tagged for identification with a microchip.

Eduardo Pavez, a veterinarian and biologist who heads the program in Chile, said many fledglings appear weak and lost to empathetic people, who keep them until wildlife authorities bring them to Santiago. These good samaritans do not realize that the condor parents were probably watching over their young, waiting for the intruders to leave.

Other condors have been wounded by gunshot or by high-tension wires in their flight paths and some show evidence of food poisoning.

Once the condors have recovered physically, they go to a rehabilitation center in Talagante. Expert observers study their physical and social repertoire to evaluate their ability to survive in the wild.

“Human contact with the birds is kept to a minimum at the center,” Pavez said. “Most of all, they need to learn to identify with their own species and not with human beings." They are kept in large cages with other condors to learn social habits, like respecting their group's "pecking order" and seduction behavior for successful mating.

More skilled condors are released into designated wildlife areas. Others are used to breed offspring that can eventually be released. But condors are slow to reproduce. They reach sexual maturity between 5 to 7 years of age and females lay only one egg every one to two years.

Released specimens are tagged with large numbers on their wings and a radio and satellite tracer on each wing for further tracking and study.