International Vulture Awareness Day 2020

Free As a Bird

By Rob Wallace | September 5, 2020

[This week, an important analysis of the Andean condor was published in Spanish and English. “Saving the Symbol of the Andes: A Range Wide Conservation Priority Setting Exercise for the Andean Condor (Vultur gryphus)” presents the work of 38 specialists from seven countries participating in an in-depth systematization of studies carried out on the distribution, ecology, and conservation status of the species along the Andean mountain range — from Venezuela to Argentina and Chile. The objective is to promote a conservation strategy at a continental level that ensures healthy populations of condors and recognizes the importance of working across boundaries for the high-flying and wide-ranging condor. The following story captures one way in which that strategy is being implemented.]

In the age of social media sometimes a WhatsApp message can mean a great deal. As a 50something wildlife biologist I never thought I would write those words, but in mid-April 2019, messages appeared in my WhatsApp that lifted my mood and those around me.

“Palca! She´s alive and well and flying all over the place!” I shouted through the office. Smiles and whoops abounded.

The WhatsApp messages were from a Bolivian colleague, Diego Mendez, an accomplished wildlife biologist and PhD candidate at the University of Madrid. Diego’s doctoral thesis concerns the movement ecology of one of South America´s most iconic wildlife species and the very symbol of the Andes: the magnificent Andean condor (Vultur gryphus).

Palca is an Andean condor — the first in Bolivia to provide data on the movements of a species renowned for its huge wingspan, prodigious soaring ability and wide-ranging behavior.

Diego had received data from a solar-powered satellite tag and was updating the Palca Release Group on WhatsApp. Palca is an Andean condor — the first in Bolivia to provide data on the movements of a species renowned for its huge wingspan, prodigious soaring ability and wide-ranging behavior.

While there have been significant condor studies in Argentina, as well as in Ecuador, less is known about condors occupying the birds’ huge middle range in Bolivia and Peru.

Palca has been helping fill in the gap, but the whoops of joy that day in my office in 2019 attest to the fact that were it not for a careful rehabilitation effort, this magnificent bird might never have played an important role as our research associate.

For reasons still unknown, in late January of 2019, Palca crash landed near the town with which it shares its name, an hour’s drive from the hustle and bustle of La Paz. After injuring her chest, she was rescued by the townsfolk of Palca and taken to La Paz’s Vesty Pakos Municipal Zoo.

With the help of zoo director Andrea Morales and her team of keepers and veterinarians, Palca began eating again. A little over a month later, health tests revealed she had fully recovered.

Palca hopped out, surveyed her surroundings, and stretched her formidable wings. Everyone held their breath, and then she leapt and was gone, immediately gliding away on a mountain up swirl across the valley.

Meanwhile, the Bolivian Andean Condor Working Group — made up of Diego, Andrea, Grace Ledezma from the zoo, Isabel Gomez from the National Natural History Museum, Juan Carlos Campero from the Bolivian Lawyers School and myself — developed a comprehensive release plan for Palca. We worked with the relevant environment authorities to ensure all adequate permits were in place before identifying a suitable release site and date.

On the morning of Friday, March 8, 2019, on a mountain top near Palca with the resplendent Andean peak Illimani — the symbol of La Paz — in sight, dozens of schoolchildren gathered with municipal and community authorities, the Ministry of the Environment and Water, the mayors of La Paz and Palca, staff from the zoo, POFOMA, the local hospital, and national press.

As community leaders performed a ritual and Palca waited in her covered cage, a pair of mountain caracaras appeared to investigate, followed by two condors swooping high above before disappearing into the distance. Many local people indicated this was a good sign, but everyone involved was nervous to see what would happen next.

Palca’s vast movement highlights the unique conservation challenge Andean condors face and the complex conservation measures required to be effective across huge geographies.

After several minutes of quiet calm, Palca´s main keeper approached the cage and opened the door. Palca hopped out and surveyed her surroundings, a transmitter tucked into a backpack harness. Cameras whirled and everyone held their breath as she stretched her formidable wings, then leapt and was gone — immediately gliding away on a mountain up swirl, across the valley and onward.

The crowd gasped a collective sigh of relief and clapped and smiled. And then as if by magic, in the distance, two condors appeared and swooped to greet Palca before the three of them banked into the next valley. Bolivians are a beautifully superstitious people.

One year on, Palca is revealing just how far condors can fly in this stretch of the Andes. The data from the 80-gram solar-powered satellite transmitter comes in steadily and the female condor is documenting regular roosting sites for the species in this portion of its range — flying a 400 km stretch of the Andes including the entire Cordillera Real and Cordillera Tres Cruces, and south as far as Cochabamba, Torotoro, Challapata, and Lago Poopó.

Palca’s vast movement highlights the unique conservation challenge Andean condors face and the complex conservation measures required to be effective across huge geographies. Worryingly, over the last few years Andean condor experts have begun to document poisoning of livestock carcasses, often retaliating against Andean carnivores such as the Andean fox or the puma. Scavenging condors succumb to the poison.

For a species with fewer than 10,000 individuals estimated in the wild, these events can be catastrophic. And the natural rarity of condors highlights the importance of every individual, including Palca. She now represents hope for the species, and a potential communication mechanism for reconnecting and reemphasizing the unique cultural value of Bolivia’s national bird to the nation.

Rob Wallace is a Senior Conservation Scientist with WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).

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