The Andean Condor,
a legend in danger
Myth and Legend have made Andean Condor an iconic animal of South America. Messenger of the gods for the Incas, he has always ruled the Andes Mountains. As emblematic as it is, the Condor is now in danger of extinction in some countries.
The Andean Condor is the largest terrestrial flying bird in the world and can measure up to 3.5 metres in wingspan at a height of 1.30 metres. His impressive physics makes him a high flying glider, using warm air currents to fly without almost never beat wings. Adults are able to travel 300 kilometres in one day, hovering in the heavens at an altitude of up to 5500 metres above sea level. The male has a crest on the top of his skull, while the female, smaller, has the particularity of having blood red eyes.
The Andean Condor is part of the family of scavengers, it feeds exclusively on dead animals. Like the other species of his family: the Catardidae, he is a cleaner. Its ability to eat and digest dead animals, thanks to the extreme acidity of its digestive system, does an enormous service to the ecosystems it attends. It avoids the spread of diseases or other bacteria that develop in carriognes and can spread to the environment.
The Andean Condor is a monogamous species, meaning that it stays with the same partner throughout its life. He can live up to 50 years in a natural environment. During the breeding period, the couple after having copulated several times finds a nest, often a small cavity on the side of a cliff. The female deposits a single egg every two years. Both parents will relay equally to incubate the egg before it closes after two months. The young condor will stay at the nest for about 6 months, before these parents strongly encourage him to take flight. It follows a long learning period of 2 years where parents will teach the young to feed themselves alone, to defend themselves, and to master the hot air currents. It is only at the age of about 7 that the young will display his adult plumage passing from a coffee color, has a black and white plumage characteristic of adults. He is finally ready to form a new couple and to reproduce in his turn.
As always, lack of information and false beliefs have overcome condor populations in Ecuador. He has been the victim of his imposing charism, and has been almost decimated by local populations over the past decades. People mistakenly thought they were eating their livestock, or that it bring bad luck. It is true that sometimes, due to lack of food condor attacks have been recorded on young cow, this behavior does not make him a cattle hunter but just an opportunist fighting for his survival. These very rare attacks did not prevent farmers from killing hundreds of Condor, or be directly poisoned. Today, only one thousands condors remain in the wild in the whole country.
Since 2010 a group of several organisations and foundations has been formed to stop the extinction of the Condor in Ecuador. International funds, local NGOs, and political delegations decided to pool their efforts together to protect what remains of wild condors and launched a re-introduction programme. The country’s largest population is located in the Antisanilla Reserve, 50 km north of Quito. It is a private reserve belonging to the Jocotoco conservation foundation, it is one of the last bastions of the wild Condor in Ecuador. With only 5000 ha, it alone supports more than 50% of the wild condor population in Ecuador, some 40 individuals. Its purpose is to protect the natural habitat of the bird, as well as to provide the food necessary for its survival.
For a sustainable management the foundation has decided to work in collaboration with local people. The "Chagras" are the native inhabitants of the area, it is the cowboys of the Paramo, emerited riders, it is them who manage the livestock on the high plateau. On these lands the foundation shares a herd of 400 animals with the chagras. The cows are partly intended for feeding wild condors, 1 to 2 animals are sacrificed each month to feed them. This integrated management has a very positive impact because it makes it possible to make the "Chagras" aware of the cause of the Condor. In fact, they were the first detractors of the condor that they believed was attacking their livestock. Now their are their protectors. This initiative also allows for the continuation of their cowboy culture, which is gradually being lost because of their forced exile to the valley.
Since the creation of the reserve by the foundation, the condors have been under high supervision thanks to the guards of the reserve and the «Chagras» who follow the slightest acts of their new proteges. Awareness associated with concrete conservation actions and a large effective education program suggest that there is still a future for the condor in the Andean sky, but given the low reproduction rate of the species it will take time.