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Scientists work to repopulate Colombia's skies with condors

Andean condors were once hunted to near extinction. Now teams feed and track the giant carrion-eaters, brought from U.S. zoos, and have increased their numbers tenfold. Tourism also benefits.

August 30, 2009|Chris Kraul | Kraul is a special correspondent.

SOGAMOSO, COLOMBIA — In ancient times, they were revered as messengers of the gods. Later, they proudly soared on the Colombian coat of arms. But at this moment, two young condors just wanted their dinner.

And so it was that peasant "condor keepers" this month placed a cow fetus on a desolate rain-swept cliff here in the Colombian Andes, the weekly ration for Iraka and Ogonta, two females released this year in a repopulation program sponsored by the San Diego Zoo.

Donated by a local slaughterhouse, the carcasses are the ideal diet for the monumental birds -- "good-quality rotting food," as the zoo's Alan Lieberman described it.

The Andean condors are the latest of 70 birds released in Colombia since 1989 after being hatched and raised in 20 U.S. zoos, most often at the San Diego Zoo.

The reintroduction program has helped push Colombia's condor population to about 150 birds, said Orlando Feliciano, a Bogota-based veterinarian who has worked with the San Diego Zoo on the project since its inception. In the mid-1980s, condors in Colombia numbered no more than 15, he said.

For centuries condors were killed by people who either thought, mistakenly, that the carrion birds attacked their livestock or that their feathers or bones had magical or medicinal power.

"They were virtually extinct, as they are today in Venezuela," Feliciano said.

The condors have an impressive survival rate here: About 70% are thought to live through the yearlong reintroduction into the wild before being forced to "make a living on their own," Lieberman said. That success reflects in part the environmental consciousness of towns such as this one, not to mention the residents' realization that the birds can be a tourist boon.

Located about 110 miles northeast of Bogota, the capital, Sogamoso is on the edge of the 100,000-acre Siscunsi Regional Nature Park that the state of Boyaca established expressly for the condors.

When Iraka wandered to a town 30 miles from here this month and perched, disoriented, looking for food, locals knew to call authorities here to capture the bird and take it back to the Siscunsi park.

Eleven local farmers, including Victor Rios, have been named "condor keepers." Outfitted with uniforms, binoculars and hand-held antennas that detect signals emitted from radio transmitters attached to the condors' wings, he monitors the birds' movements as best he can.

"They are such majestic animals you can't help but be fascinated," said Rios, who also is paid a small monthly stipend.

The condors imported to Colombia were all hatched by pairs of Andean condors in zoos in San Diego, Los Angeles, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Denver and elsewhere.

Once the birds are 3 to 4 years old, they are turned over to the San Diego Zoo, which outfits them with radio transmitters to track them and then ships them to Colombia, where biologists in five Andean regions called "repopulation nuclei" take over.

The apparent success of the costly program, which parallels a program for the California condor, bespeaks the financial and personnel commitment of the U.S. zoos, particularly San Diego's, that underwrite most of the costs.

The raising, transportation and outfitting of each condor with an implanted radio costs "thousands of dollars" per bird, said Michael Mace, San Diego Zoo's curator of birds.

"We do it because we can, as stewards of the planet, and mindful of our responsibility to take care of the ecosystem and the wildlife within it," said Lieberman, who directs the San Diego Zoo's field programs and who has long conducted field research in Colombia.

The two condors released in February brought to 11 the total set free in Boyaca state since 2004. (Two have died, one killed by a hunter, another electrocuted on a high-voltage power line.)

The state environment office, Corpoboyaca, and a local nongovernmental organization known as Fundetropico educate local schoolchildren and peasants that, contrary to common belief, condors do not kill livestock or pose a threat to humans, but eat only carrion.

Over the centuries, such misconceptions caused a relentless hunting down of the animals that once ranged across South America. The education programs tout the condors' role in cleaning up the environment and their cultural significance.

"Condors are the emblem of Colombia, a symbol for all South America," Feliciano said.

"We teach the mythic value of the condor, how pre-Columbians saw them as a medium of the gods," said Olga Lucia Nunez, a biologist with Fundetropico here, adding that the birds that silently glide for hours with 10-foot wingspans inspire awe. "Condors stand for peace and respect. They are messengers from the sun."

Locals who just a few years ago had never seen a condor now relish their sightings and say the establishment of the park has been a boon to the economy. This isolated part of Colombia now sees up to 200 condor-seeking tourists a month.

Standing up for condors can pay dividends, said local store owner Ernesto Gomez. "They have created a lot of enthusiasm among tourists," he said.

Four more condors -- two from Denver and one each from Pittsburgh and San Diego -- are scheduled to be released here early next year to mark the program's 20th anniversary, as well as Colombia's bicentennial, said Mace of the San Diego Zoo.

In a change from past releases, the condors will be outfitted with satellite sensors to help better track the birds' flight patterns and habits.

"We have the ability, desire, resources and passion to do this," Lieberman said. "To have this technology and not use it would be irresponsible."

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