There are many things that attack your senses if you visit south patagonia. First the wind, vicious and constant, that blows your glasses off your face, your hat off your head and, if you’re not careful, blows you away from the narrow path you are walking on. Then there is the landscape. Grassy, arid, treeless plains that stretch for miles until they meet the Andes, which seem to appear out of nowhere and take your breath away with their rugged, snow-capped peaks.
Finally there is the wildlife. Grazing guanacos (a close relationship with llamas), hideous rheas with their young who run after them in an orderly line, scaly armadillos suckling insects from the ground. In the distance, Patagonian foxes sniff the air intensely in search of their next snack, and pumas sneak up silently. But perhaps most noticeable are the condors, hovering high above you, circling for carrion. If you’re really lucky, you can see them on the ground hopping around a guanacocadaver, their smart and surprisingly handsome bald faces looming over their feathered shoulders.
As for the first time in the Andes, it is a breathtaking experience to observe a gryphus of the Andean condor culture in its natural habitat. And one that can soon be denied to many. Unfortunately, our recently published update of the Red List shows that the Condor’s fate is becoming increasingly bleak across its range. If we don’t act soon, these majestic birds that are so much a part of the Andean landscape could be lost forever.
While the number of condors is decreasing across the continent, the populations are lowest in the northern part of their range. There are fears that the species is now extinct in Venezuela, and there are only around 7,000 adults left in its range. “The Andean condor is designed to last. But people are ruining their natural “live slow, die old” strategy in life, causing high mortality rates that are difficult to recover from, “says Ian Davidson, our director in America.
To anyone who has watched our coverage of the vulture crises in Asia, Europe and Africa, the threats condors face will no doubt sound eerily familiar. Poisoning (both deliberate and accidental) is high on the list, but condors are also affected by habitat loss, illegal hunting and wildlife trade, competition for food by wild dog populations, and collisions with energy infrastructure.
Most worryingly, several mass poisonings have been reported in recent years. Many ranchers in the area coat animal carcasses with illegal organophosphate pesticides and other chemicals to ward off potential predators such as pumas, foxes and wild dogs. In 2018 alone, over 120 condors were confirmed to have been killed by poisoning, with one event in Patagonia, Argentina causing 23 deaths. This practice is harmful not only to condors, but to all wildlife.
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The effects of these combined threats on vultures of the Old World were significant and severe. In Asia, vulture populations fell by 99% over a period of 20 years due to the use of NSAIDs – drugs that are deadly to vultures of the Old World – in ranching. Seven vultures are critically endangered in Africa. If a similar pattern emerges in the Americas, the outcome would be disastrous.
However, there is hope. Our work to protect the vultures of the Old World has shown that decisive and purposeful action can be successful. Following a general ban on NSAIDs and the introduction of vulture protection zones in several Asian countries, vulture populations in the region are now showing signs of stabilization. In addition to banning harmful drugs and chemicals (and effectively enforcing those bans), the best tools in our arsenal to protect condors are increased habitat protection, awareness and education. Fortunately, there are already a number of Condor protection programs in place in South America.
The Andean Condor Working Group, established in 2012, brings together the efforts of a number of organizations focused on the protection of condors in the region. Aves y Conservación (BirdLife in Ecuador) participated as a member of the Ecuador working group in the surveillance of the population through a nationwide census and awareness-raising. The Jocotoco Foundation also set up a special reserve in 2014, and there have been several successful publications in the country. Asociación Armonía (BirdLife in Bolivia) has also been actively involved in monitoring condor populations and raising awareness through educational programs in the community.
The condor’s change of the status of the Red List to “Vulnerable” gives us a clear message that we need to expand these conservation activities and do more work to protect the species throughout their range. If we act quickly, we will have the opportunity to avoid the same level of crisis that afflicted the vultures of the Old World.
At dawn on a typically cool Patagonian morning a few years ago, your writer gathered with a number of other excited onlookers to watch the sun rise over the Fitz Roy Mountains in Argentina. As the sunlight turned the mountains a bright pink glow, the group was distracted by a condor, which flew and climbed higher and higher until it disappeared out of sight. The thought that this spectacle will become more and more rare or disappear completely is indescribably sad – but not inevitable.
Questions and Answers: Tatiana Santander, Project Coordinator, Birds and Conservation
When did the Condor’s plight first appear on your radar?
We were the first organization to launch a campaign to save the condor in Ecuador in the 1990s. We were involved in monitoring the condors through the census.
What measures have helped to assess the extent of the situation?
Radio Tracking – run by the Peregrine Fund and Fundacion Condor – was critical to better understanding the species in Ecuador. For example, this persecution has shown us that most condors are not in protected areas.
What are the next steps to conserve condors?
Environmental education is probably one of the most important activities we need to focus on. In addition to raising awareness among students and local communities – which we have done very successfully – we need to educate governments and policymakers that they have the power to make significant changes to help protect this species. In the future we would like to create a Condor stand, a mobile educational unit that can be easily integrated into communities across the country.
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