SAN DIEGO — Wildlife experts have proposed an unprecedented plan to place Andean condors native to South America in the traditional habitat of the California condor as a means of testing potential dangers to the rare California bird.
The controlled experiment would take place after the planned capture of the last three California condors still in the wild. Those three birds will be placed with 24 other members of the species in captive breeding programs at the Los Angeles and San Diego zoos.
As many as 15 juvenile Andean condors, all of the same sex, then would be released at two sites in the Los Padres National Forest northwest of Los Angeles.
All the Andean condors would be radio-tagged and trapped at the conclusion of the two-year experiment. Their experience would be evaluated before the first captive-bred California condors would be released.
Scientists believe that by studying what happens to the Andean condors, which will be obtained from abundant numbers in breeding programs at zoos across the nation, they can learn the answers to questions about how well zoo-bred California condors will adapt to life in the wild. Biologists will examine the condors' feeding habits, flight patterns and ability to survive with minimal human contact.
The proposal could prove controversial, however, because scientists in general are loathe to release exotic species into habitats of native species for fear of cross-breeding and possible usurpation of the environment.
The plan could require more than a year of review by federal and state agencies before necessary permits are issued.
"I know the proposal seems radical--the novelty of doing this for the first time--but if you pare away the sensationalism, it's actually kind of mundane," said Lloyd Kiff, director of the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology and chairman of the California Condor Recovery Team.
The team of 11 experts unanimously made the recommendation to the California condor coordinator of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who will make a final decision to apply for permits after discussions with numerous environmental and public-interest groups.
The proposal comes as biologists are attempting to trap the final three birds because their safety in nature can no longer be guaranteed. The birds will be placed in the two zoos and added to seven other adults previously caught in the wild and 17 juveniles raised in captivity from eggs taken from nests in the Los Padres breeding area.
Although no mating has yet taken place in the two zoos, scientists expect to be successful and have offspring to release back into the wild between 1990 and 1992. For that reason, Kiff said the team wants to begin preparing now to minimize the risk of deaths among those birds released.
"Anything we can do to minimize the chances of failure is a positive step," Kiff said. "Losses of the California condor will of course be inevitable, but it will hurt the release program to lose one right off the bat."
Mike Wallace, a San Diego biologist now working jointly for the two zoos, released and followed Andean condors in Peru from 1980 to 1984 specifically to develop reintroduction techniques for the California condor, a close relative of the Andean bird.
"There's a hell of a lot of work involved here," Wallace said. "We have to assure all the various groups--Sierra Club, Audubon, etc.--that we are not going to be substituting Andeans for the California condor, that this is a timed, controlled experiment."