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.
Pincoya, a young female born in captivity, was insecure, clumsy and timid with her newly found freedom when she was released last March. She flew only short distances before returning to where she had been released. Some feared she would need to be recaptured, but the decision to “wait and see” won out.
Last winter the team took on the arduous task of hauling food for Pincoya through the snow on donkeys to assure her survival. Soon they tracked her wandering 170 miles further south in search of her own meals.
Condors have a wingspan of up to 10.5 feet and weigh up to 33 pounds. Standing, they are as high as a man’s waist. Flying low, they often intimidate herdsmen watching over livestock in summer pastures in the lonely heights. Many arrieros shoot the curious vultures out of ignorance, or for sport, in the belief that condors will attack live animals or even their keepers.
But condors are not birds of prey. They are carnivorous scavengers, or vultures. They feed almost exclusively on large, dead or dying mammals. Unlike eagles or hawks, condors' feet have no talons to snatch up prey and lack the strength to transport an entire carcass to their young.
Condors can spot a meal several miles away and gather to partake in the banquet. In the summer, condors find dead sheep, cattle and horses in the Andes. They also cruise the Pacific coast for dead seals, whales, dolphins or seabird eggs, covering extensive territory in a day. The wild, native animals, such as the llama-like guanaco and huemul deer, that used to make up their diet are now themselves scarce or endangered.
After domestic animals return to farms and feeding pens at lower elevations in winter, condors turn to garbage dumps in their search for food. They may even devour poisoned carcasses farmers use as bait to kill off predators like packs of wild dogs, foxes and pumas.
Last December, three condors were placed in holding pens in the nature sanctuary Yerba Loca, at an elevation of 6,500 feet, to develop a sense of territory at higher altitudes before their release. The team observing them soon saw a visit from a free condor.
It was Pincoya, the female condor born in captivity and released at the beginning of last year. Her appearance inspired a tremendous surge of optimism among the team. She is the living proof that their efforts are not in vain.
She was flying, “Like the gods!” said Pavez, “Even better, like a real condor!”