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Environment : Condors in the Mist Make Scientists' Hearts Soar : In Colombia, the Earth's biggest flying creatures are being saved from extinction. California ecologists are watching the experiment with interest.

February 11, 1992|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHINGAZA NATIONAL PARK, Colombia — They floated majestically above the slate-gray reservoir, spiraling upward on currents of warm air. With no visible movement of their vast outstretched wings, five young Andean condors rose into a white band of clouds high in the faded green mountains.

Juan Manuel Paez spotted them from across the reservoir, slammed his red Chevrolet pickup to a halt and grabbed the binoculars off the dashboard, focusing quickly to relish the sight.

When the huge birds were brought here from California, the biologist explained, they avoided clouds. It took eight months, he said, but once they felt secure, they plunged in and flew blind.

"It was a rite of passage," Paez said. "Look at them now. They are fascinated by clouds."

The spectacle of condors in the mist is one measure of the success of Colombia's new program to save these endangered scavengers, the largest flying creatures on Earth. It is a sign that the birds, hatched in the zoos of Los Angeles and San Diego, are adapting to the rarefied Andean heights once ruled by their ancestors.

Revered by indigenous peoples and enshrined as national symbols, wild Andean condors are diminishing in number in all seven South American countries where they once flourished. Colombia is leading an effort to reverse the trend by releasing zoo-born yearlings into the wild.

Twenty-two young condors have been set loose since mid-1989--nine in this park in the mountains near Bogota, eight in Purace National Park in the Cauca Valley and five on the Los Chiles Indian reservation near the Ecuadorean border. Seven more are to be freed this year.

Inderesa, Colombia's environmental agency, is committed to feeding and monitoring the condors until they can forage for food on their own, mate and make the colonies self-sustaining.

"We're talking about more than saving a bird," said Paez, the program's 26-year-old coordinator. "We're talking about saving our cultural heritage. We want to be able to show our children a living symbol of our nation, not just a photograph of something extinct, like a dinosaur."

So far, all three colonies are surviving. Those in Los Chiles have blended into a population of 14 wild condors. The others, launched into "condor vacuums" where previous colonies had been wiped out, are slowly extending their flight range but still depend on meals served by humans. Three of the new condors have died. The oldest survivors are still three years too young to mate.

Yet, the experiment is sound enough to serve as a model. Venezuela, where the condor is extinct, plans to release four Andean condors, to be sent from San Diego later this year. California scientists, who last month released zoo-bred California condors for the first time into Los Padres National Park, are studying Colombia's program for ways to perfect their own.

"What's going on in Colombia is very much experimental but very important," said Mike Wallace, curator of birds at the Los Angeles Zoo, who helped launch the condors here. "If it can be shown that these birds can be put back in the environment there and protected from being shot or poisoned, then there's hope for condors elsewhere."

The Andean condor, slightly larger than its California cousin, can weigh up to 33 pounds, spread its wings 10 1/2 feet and live 60 years. Charles Darwin, observing the Andean condor soar effortlessly over Chile in the 19th Century, called it "the bird of perfect flight."

But both species are vulnerable creatures--cornered by encroaching human settlement, pollution, deforestation and uncontrolled hunting. They are also slow to reproduce.

Wallace estimates that 5,000 to 10,000 Andean condors still live in South America, mostly in Chile and Argentina. But by the late 1980s, only 23 were left in the wilds of Colombia. The population of California condors, whose ancestors roamed North America, had dwindled to only 27 when all were captured in an effort to save the species.

It was then that the fates of condors in California and Colombia became intertwined. Andean condors had been displayed in zoos in the United States since 1956. In 1988, female descendants of that group were first released in Los Padres for "guinea pig" observation by scientists preparing to reintroduce the California condors there.

To avoid reproducing Andean condors in the wilds of California, Andean males were kept caged. Something had to be done with their growing numbers, so they were flown here to become pioneers in Colombia's own save-the-condor project.

As the five condors vanished into the clouds across the reservoir, Paez pointed the antenna of a hand-held radio in their direction and scanned all frequencies. He picked up irregular beeps on five of them. " Los machos ," he said.

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