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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.

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!”