- The California condor narrowly escaped extinction in the 1980s thanks to conservation efforts of the Andean condor reintroduced to the Eliscas Peninsula in Peru.
- The Eliscas wilderness will soon be officially protected as Eliscas National Reserve, a development that prompted Enrique Ortiz, senior program manager for the Andes Amazon Trust, to tell the story of how Andean condors helped save the California condor.
- The Spanish version of this piece originally appeared on the Mongabay-Latam website.
- This post is a comment. The opinions expressed are those of the author, not necessarily those of Mongabay.
A few years ago, alone on top of a mountain in Zion National Park in Utah, USA, I had an almost mystical experience that immediately transported me to the Eliscas Peninsula, in Piura, Peru. Out of nowhere, a California Condor appeared with a number written on a plastic board attached to its wing, sitting just a few feet from me. It was an unusual event because, one species, it is a very rare species that has been “miraculously” saved from extinction. The second, that in the early ’80s, Elisas and I were directly involved in the survival mission. It was as if that condor came to greet me… and whispered something in my ear.
By the late 1970s, it was clear that the California condor was on its way to disappearing, as a result of poisoning, hunting and habitat destruction. Annual censuses showed a significant drop in numbers. At the time, there was a bitter debate about what to do. Some have said that extinction is inevitable, and as a matter of respect, we should let the species go in peace. Others, pragmatic and stubborn, believe that they can be saved and that it is necessary to act quickly and radically. When only 22 of them remained in the wild, and flew freely in the skies of North America (plus some in captivity), the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) decided to act. With technical support from scientists, led by the San Diego Zoo, they set out to capture them all. None of them were left free. It was all or nothing.
The Eliscas Peninsula: A Surreal Place
In the 1980s, the Eliscas Peninsula was one of those almost inaccessible places, with a surreal atmosphere around it. It was the only known location on the coast where the Andean Condor overlapped. What made it all the more attractive was that from that point on the north coast where the Humboldt Current flows away from the mainland in the direction to the Galapagos, there were no towns or roads to and from the nearest town, Chiclayo. Just a 200km stretch of completely pristine beach, the longest in Peru. To get there, you have to be very well equipped. Moreover, wild groups of donkeys and goats, which introduced animals of unknown origin, were known to exist there. Towering mountains at the edge of the sea with colonies of sea lions and whalebones stranded through time, in the middle of a desert full of quaint animals, such as small Sechura foxes and coral snakes, was the dream of a young biologist.
A bold yet risky plan to save the California condor
The California condor, besides being the largest bird in North America, has religious and magical significance to its ancestors and the modern cultures of its country. The idea of catching them seemed too risky and daring. The plan was to reproduce the California condor in captivity, and while the causes of its near extinction have been corrected, it will be reintroduced into the wild to repopulate its native lands. Not much was known about them, and at that time, no one had experience with such a program. These biologists were literally putting their necks on the line, but they had high hopes and a decent budget. Although captive breeding techniques had already been developed, reintroducing the birds to the wild was more difficult, even for a bird of this size and wide flight range. And if they succeed, will they live freely? Did the effort serve any purpose?
Experimenting with the technologies required by this endeavor has been quite a challenge, and such a limited number of California condors cannot be jeopardized while they are being tested. A replacement is needed. there he is! The Andean condor is the closest and most similar to the California condor, and therefore, he had to help save it. The plan also needed a safe place where it could be carried out, a place with a wild condor and free from human interference. And this is how we got to the Eliscas Peninsula in Peru, the perfect place for it. An extant captive group of the Andean Condors in the United States, possibly of Peruvian origin, was selected for this task, and their chicks were the focal point. The chicks, born and raised in captivity at the San Diego Zoo, were fed for over a year with the dolls the same way their parents were fed (even mimicking their caring sounds), and they were completely isolated so they wouldn’t be imprinted. with people. Can you imagine the patience of technicians? Such a thing can only be done with a lot of love and dedication.
Field test of the plan
With the support of both governments, these chicks of the Andean condor, already ready to fly, were brought to Peru in the early 1980s, and carefully transported to the Eliscas Peninsula. This important shipment required great efforts without telling anyone. They were released into places that might once have been nests and then spotted around the clock, 24/7. At the same time, many wild alicas condors were captured and tagged, to monitor the local population and learn about their social life, which is important information for the program. Each Andean condor, imported and original, had on its wing an individual identification, a transmitter of location data. In addition, it 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 were the beginnings of the widely used satellite tracking technology today. Condors were constantly followed to find out their movements, or … whether they were alive. As a field research assistant, I was one of those dedicated trackers.
The experience of living 24 hours a day for months, without Sundays or vacations, wandering with the telescope through the desert and mountains, alone, and in the program’s private dune buggies, was an unforgettable experience. I remember waking up in the night–from the holes I made in the sand to sleep–to the zebras, who were more surprised by that encounter. And for condors, my dearest chicks so large, they have almost developed a parental affection. While my only entry for the day at times was that “at 3:42 p.m. someone scratched their ass,” it was never boring. Other times, I’ve watched wild condors—adults completely alienated from Peruvian-North American chicks—come to feed as adoptive parents. Society cares about young people! That period was without a doubt one of the most exciting times of my life.
Apply lessons from Peru to California
To make the long and rich history short, it was there in Eliscas that techniques were developed that were later used to save the California condor. Thanks to his brother, the Andean Condor, scientists learned (and applied) what proper care to take, times and factors of dependency, what gear to use, and, above all, about the socialization of these wonderful animals. Well, coincidentally now, it is with immense pleasure that the place where all this happened is about to be declared Iliscas National Reserve. This beautiful place is finally classified and protected for its biological and geological characteristics. It is one of the westernmost continental points of Peru, with the last remnants (to the north) of the ancient coastal cordillera (mountain range). These conditions created the environment in which Illescas’ unique species thrived, a mixture of warm and cool environments, with mangroves, Loma mists, penguins, dozens of migratory bird species, as well as a healthy population of the endangered Andes. It’s all thanks to the SERNANP (Peruvian Park Service), the Piura authorities, and the peoples of the Sechura Desert.
Hours later, having already recovered from the encounter with a wild condor in Utah, I passed on my experience to a zookeeper, who probably thought I was under the influence of a hallucinogen. Well, no. See the picture that proves it. Ten years after Illescas, the California condor was reintroduced to the wild in various places in the United States, and today there is a growing population of about 350 flying freely. They have been exempted from 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 Eliscas National Reserve, the California Condor was saved. Ah, condor friend from Utah, you are most welcome!