How Peru’s Andean condors saved the California condor from extinction

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This article is written by Enrique Ortiz and has been reprinted with permission from Mongabay.

California condor. Photo by Enrique Ortiz

A few years ago, alone on a mountaintop in Zion National Park, Utah, USA, I had an almost mystical experience that immediately transported me to the Illescas Peninsula, in Piura, Peru. Out of nowhere, a California condor appeared with a number written on a plastic plate attached to its wing, perched a few feet from me.

It was an extraordinary event because, first of all, it is a very rare species that “miraculously” was saved from extinction. And second, in the early 1980s, Illescas and I were directly involved in his survival mission. It was as if this condor had come to greet me…and whisper something in my ear.

By the late 1970s, it was clear that the California condor was on the verge of extinction, as a result of poisoning, hunting, and habitat destruction. Annual censuses have shown a significant decline in numbers.

At the time, there was a bitter discussion about what to do. Some have said extinction is inevitable and out of respect we should let the species go in peace. Others, practical and stubborn, believed that they could be saved and that it was necessary to act quickly and radically. With only 22 of them left in the wild, flying freely in the skies of North America (in addition to some in captivity), the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) decided to ‘to act. With the technical support of scientists, led by the San Diego Zoo, they proceeded to capture them. None were left free. It was all or nothing.

The Illescas peninsula: a surreal place

In the 1980s, the Illescas peninsula was one of those almost inaccessible places, with a surreal air. It was the only known site on the coast where the Andean Condor nested. What made it even more appealing was that from that point on the north coast where the Humboldt Current heads away from the mainland toward the Galapagos Islands, there were no towns or roads to or from the nearest town, Chiclayo. Just a 200 kilometer stretch of completely virgin beach, the longest in Peru. To get there, you had to be very well equipped.

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In addition, wild populations of donkeys and goats, introduced animals of unknown origin, were known there. The mountains, rising from a sea with colonies of sea lions and time-stranded whale bones, amidst a desert full of attractive animals, such as tiny Sechura foxes and snakes coral, were the dream of a young biologist.

A bold but risky plan to save the California condor

Andean condor. Photo by Enrique Ortiz

The California condor, in addition to being the largest North American bird, has religious and magical significance for the ancestral and modern cultures of its country. The idea of ​​catching them seemed risky and daring.

The plan was to breed the California Condor in captivity, and while the causes that led to their near extinction were corrected, they would be reintroduced into the wild to repopulate their native territories. Very little was known about them, and at the time, no one had experience with such a program. These biologists were literally putting their heads on the line, but they had high hopes and an appropriate budget. Although captive breeding techniques had already been developed, reintroducing birds to the wild was more difficult, more so for a bird of this size and wide flight range. And, if they succeeded, would they survive in freedom? Would the effort have served any purpose?

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Experimenting with the techniques this business required was a great challenge, and such a limited number of California condors could not be endangered by testing them. A substitute was needed. So !

The Andean Condor is the closest and most similar relative to the California Condor, and therefore had to help save it. The plan also needed a safe place where it could be carried out, a place with wild condors and free from human interference. And that’s how we arrived at the Illescas peninsula in Peru, the perfect place for it.

An existing captive population of Andean condors in the United States, likely of Peruvian origin, was chosen for this task, and their chicks were the focal point. The chicks, born and cared for in captivity at the San Diego Zoo, were fed puppets for more than a year in the same way as their parents (even mimicking their caring sounds), and totally isolated so they wouldn’t are not printed. with people. Can you imagine the patience of the technicians? Something like this can only be done with a lot of love and dedication.

Test the plan in the field

With the support of both governments, these Andean condor chicks, already fledged and ready to fly, were brought to Peru in the early 1980s and carefully taken to the Illescas Peninsula. Such a large cargo required considerable effort without making it a news for anyone. They were released in places that might once have been nests and then monitored 24/7.

At the same time, several wild condors from Illescas were captured and tagged, in order to monitor the local population and learn about their social life, essential information for the program. Each Andean Condor, imported and native, carried on its wing an individual identification, and a location data transmitter.

In addition, these carried a small solar panel that powered the devices. Everything had to be very small and light, and at the time it was like science fiction. These are the beginnings of a satellite tracking technique widely used today. The condors were constantly tracked to find out where they were, or… if they were alive. As a field research assistant, I was one of those dedicated trackers.

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The experience of living 24 hours a day for months, without Sundays or holidays, wandering with a telescope through the desert and the mountains, alone, and in special buggies for the program, was unforgettable. I remember being awakened at night – from the holes I had dug in the sand to sleep – by wild donkeys, more surprised than me by the encounter. And for the condors, my dear extra-large chicks, I have developed an almost fatherly affection. While sometimes my only entry for the day was that “at 3:42 one of them scratched his butt”, it was never boring.

Other times, I’ve seen wild condors – totally unfamiliar adults to Peruvian-North American chicks – coming to nurture them as adoptive parents. The community took care of the young people! This period was undoubtedly one of the most spectacular of my life.

Applying lessons from Peru to California

To cut short a long and storied history, in Illescas techniques were developed which were later used to save the California Condor. Thanks to its sibling, the Andean Condor, scientists have learned (and put into practice) the proper care to take, the times and dependence factors, the gear to use, and above all, the sociability of these wonderful animals. .

Well, coincidentally now it is a great joy that the place where all this happened is about to be declared “Illescas National Reserve”. This beautiful place is finally classified and protected for its own biological and geological attributes. It is one of the westernmost continental points of Peru, with the last remnant (to the north) of the ancient Coastal Cordillera (mountain range).

These conditions have created the environment where species unique to Illescas have thrived, and a mix of hot and cold environments, with mangroves, Loma fog vegetation, penguins, dozens of migratory bird species, as well than a healthy population of the endangered Andean Condor. All thanks to SERNANP (the Peruvian Parks Service), the authorities of Piura and the people of the Sechura desert.

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A few hours later, already recovered from the encounter with the wild Condor in Utah, I told a ranger about my experience, and he probably thought I was under the influence of a hallucinogen. Well no. See the photo that proves it.

Ten years after Illescas, California condors were reintroduced into the wild in various locations across the United States, and today there is a growing population of approximately 350 free-flying individuals. They were spared joining the list of confirmed extinct species, which includes the huge ivory-billed woodpecker, among other unfortunate creatures.

Thanks to the Andean Condor and the future Illescas National Reserve, the California Condor has been saved. Ahh, fellow condor from Utah, you’re welcome!

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