Condors are native to California, and their numbers there are dropping, but San Diego Zoo is sponsoring a condor reintroduction programme based in Colombia. Seventy birds have been released in the Colombian highlands in the past two decades, most of them from San Diego’s breeding project, although twenty zoos in the US have been involved in the scheme.
The reintroduction programme has doubled the condor population in the Colombian Andes, although at one point before the project began, it looked as if extinction was certain, with less than twenty birds living in the area and most of them failing to rear young.
Reintroduction requires re-education
One reason for the death rate was that local people often killed the birds, either because they thought condors were prey seekers who killed livestock or to take feathers and bones for folk medicine. Another reason was that young birds, which like all condors, survive on carrion, found it more difficult to locate dead animals once they left the nest and didn’t have an adult to guide them to food sources. Finally, because condors mate for life, when one bird dies, the other doesn’t often find a new partner once the population starts to decline.
However, the new programme focuses on education as much as reintroduction. Local villagers are appointed as ‘condor keepers’ and given uniforms and receivers that pick up signals from the radio transmitters that the released birds carry. This helps them to track the birds, as well as allowing them to act as ambassadors to the local community, pointing out that the birds bring tourist money, as well as serving as environmental rubbish clearers by consuming carcases that could spread disease to livestock. The condor keepers also teach young people about the cultural and folk significance of the condor which appears on the Colombian flag. Although one released bird has been killed by a hunter, another was found near a town, disoriented and hungry, and the locals knew who to call to get the bird taken back to its territory where food can be provided if necessary.
Big birds make big dollars arrive
Captive breeding, raising, transporting and outfitting a condor with the radio costs thousands of dollars. But the local economy recoups a lot of this cost because the park in which many of the released birds live now receives around a hundred tourists a month: all of them looking for condors. San Diego Zoo says ‘… we do it because we can, as stewards of the planet, and … to take care of the ecosystem and the wildlife within it.’
While the Zoo may focus on ecosystems, the rural Colombian communities which co-exist with the birds see something very different – the interrelationship between large mammals and developed nations which has become an increasing driver of tourism – simply put, when most people in the developed world can’t see large mammals in their towns, they include animal watching in their holidays, and that takes them to remote, often underdeveloped regions, where those creatures still exist. Infrastructure arrives swiftly: better roads, radio masts and refrigeration, to support the tourists. It’s still an open question as to whether tourist development proves sustainable, but as far as many in the Andes are concerned, the condors, and the money they bring, are here to stay.
Condor courtesy of Benedict Adam at Flickr under a creative commons license