A look inside the monumental effort to save the Andean condor

The enormous vulture has declined due to poisonings and land development, but rescue efforts are helping it slowly make a comeback.

By Rebecca Dzombak
Published 15 Aug 2022, 14:11 BST
Tupun Catu, a rehabilitated juvenile condor, spreads his wings to take flight above the Cordon del ...
Tupun Catu, a rehabilitated juvenile condor, spreads his wings to take flight above the Cordon del Plata Park in Mendoza, Argentina, in April 2022. Each time the Andean Condor Conservation Program (PCCA) returns a condor to the wild, members of local Indigenous communities come to take part in a ceremony honoring the condor. Each community’s ceremony is unique, and an essential part of the PCCA’s approach to conservation.

The world’s largest bird of prey is in trouble, and locals are working to save it. 

The Andean condor, a massive South American cousin of the California condor, once soared along the full length and breadth of the Andes and beyond. With a wingspan of 10 feet and a life span of 50 years, the bird has long been revered among Indigenous Andean cultures as a symbol of power and immortality. It’s the national bird of at least four countries.

The illustrious vulture, however, hasn’t been able to withstand human encroachment. Wind turbines and power lines can stop condors mid-flight. Lead bullets, buried in carcasses abandoned by hunters, slowly poison the scavengers’ blood. Some agricultural communities leave out poison bait to kill predators that prey on their livestock, a practice that also kills condors indirectly. Deliberate hunting and poaching are rare, but still happens.

Classified as vulnerable to extinction by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), only about 6,700 adult condors remain in the wild today. But scientists, conservationists, and Indigenous communities are helping the iconic bird make a comeback. 

The Andean Condor Conservation Program (PCCA) has been leading that effort in Argentina for three decades. In that time, the program has rescued at least 370 condors—more than five percent of the species’ overall population—and has hatched and released 80 condor chicks. In doing so, the group has reestablished Andean condors along the Atlantic coast of southern Patagonia.

At a condor release in the province of Tucumán in northwestern Argentina, Diaguita chief Santos Pastrana guides the ceremony with a wand featuring a traditional Andean depiction of a double-headed condor. “For our community, all biodiversity, but especially the condor, is a symbol of spirituality, wisdom, and courage,” Pastrana says.
Photograph by Photogr
Kurruf is one of 64 condors the program has released along Patagonia’s Atlantic coast as part of an effort to reestablish the Andean condor’s 19th century range. Local oral histories and historical references, such as Charles Darwin’s notes from his time there, have helped conservationists reconstruct that range. Now, for the first time in 170 years, the Andean condor can be seen coast to coast in Argentina.
Photograph by Photogr

To many, the loss of the condor—and its slow resurgence—is personal and emotional. They’re the “spirit of the Andes,” says Luis Jácome, director of the PCCA. Many Patagonian villagers, he says, recall stories their grandparents told of the enormous birds, flying over the hills. 

Because of this deep-seated connection with Andean peoples, every time the PCCA releases a condor, the local community hosts a unique ceremony, led by a spiritual leader, to celebrate the bird’s return and offer prayers. To Jácome, this is an essential part of reintroducing the condor to its home. “Our work is like the two wings of the condor,” he says. “One wing is scientific knowledge, and the other is culture. The condor is a sacred bird for all our people in South America.” 

Photographer and National Geographic Explorer Sofia Lopez Mañan is dedicated to recognising this unique role the bird plays in Indigenous society and has spent the last six years working intimately with the PCCA “condor family.” More than anything, she says it felt like fate: “I started working with condors because they chose me.” 

Among birds, condors are exceptionally slow breeders, only reproducing when they reach maturity at around nine years old and rearing a chick every two to three years. To help speed up the process, the PCCA sometimes removes eggs from captive pairs in zoological institutions to incubate in its facility. After the egg is removed, the couple will typically produce a second that remains in their care, multiplying the reproductive capacity of the species. Tama, this rescued female condor, has laid several eggs and the PCCA has released her chicks into the wild.
Photograph by Photogr

In addition to hatching, rescuing, and releasing condors, scientists with PCCA are using GPS-tracking collars to follow the birds once they return to the wild. The data allows them to identify key habitats and educate policymakers about which areas should be targeted for protection. Some of the most crucial Patagonian lands where the birds have been released back into the wild are proposed for development for energy production, using wind turbines and green hydrogen.

“Today, we are living in conflict,” Jácome says. “There must be a return to the natural order.” 

The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, funded Explorer Sofia Lopez Mañan’s work. Learn more about the Society’s support of Explorers highlighting and protecting critical species.

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