Microchips and the mystery of 'suicidal' condors

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The Independent Online

Devout Buddhists are willing to queue for the fleeting thrill of holding a songbird in their cupped hands before setting it free.

Devout Buddhists are willing to queue for the fleeting thrill of holding a songbird in their cupped hands before setting it free. It gave them an inkling of how their own trapped souls would fly into the infinite, a Burmese monk once told me.

Half a world away in central Chile, this gesture will be replayed on a grand scale later this month. A scheme to release eight captive condor chicks into the wild is attracting an international line-up of ornithologists, ecologists and Nasa scientists to Yerba Loca nature reserve, an Andes waystation outside Santiago. These two-year-old condors are being trained to leave their cage, and eventually to soar above the snowclad peaks at 17,000ft (5,200m), reaching speeds of 35mph.

"That will be a very emotional moment,'' said Luis Jacome, an Argentine biologist who helps to oversee the young birds at Yerba Loca. "Nobody knows quite what they will do.'' The downy baby condors, which are 3ft (90cm) tall and extremely raucous, require cautious handling. Their trainers must hide behind lifesized condor puppets and coax them to eat diced mice and bonemeal, because no pair of adult condors is willing to take on the chore of foraging for them. "The only natural enemy the condor has is man,'' Mr Jacome pointed out.

Spanish colonialists and farmers came to fear that the ferocious-looking birds preyed on newborn livestock and, to protect their flocks, they would shoot down as many as possible. Yet condors dine mostly on carrion and gull eggs, and can go for 45 days with no sustenance at all. These giant birds will travel hundreds of miles to spiral over a fresh carcass, and then may gorge so heavily that they are unable to lift off again for hours. Their vision is phenomenal: they can spot a dead sea lion from two miles away. Glossy black wings that span 10ft enable them to glide silently on thermal upwinds, and at 25lb (11kg) they are the heaviest birds that can get themselves airborn.

Condors were considered a sacred link between the sky and the underworld by the ancient Incas, who built aviary shrines to the condor deity, Apu Kuntur. Their image is venerated on rock-carvings and ancient pottery, and even woven into tourist rugs today. Peasants in remote Andean hamlets still endeavour to capture a wild condor each year for a local bloodfest called Yawar. They give it a ritual offering of rum, then bind its feet to a bull's back and force the drunken condor to battle with the beast for a quarter of an hour before allowing it to fly away. The bold, bald birds have been known to survive for 85 years and village elders try to entice the same wild condor back every year, rewarding it with fresh blood and then with freedom.

The Condor Release Project directors don't expect that their eight fledglings will end up in any bullrings. Eduardo Pavez, the Chilean head of the programme, told reporters how microchip tagging would allow local scientists, with help from Nasa satellites, to track the flight patterns and nesting sites so they may pinpoint areas to be set aside as reserves. If any peasants manage to trap these birds, however briefly, scientists would be alerted.

Condors continue to be emblematic of the high Andes but, in the 500 years since Spanish conquest, they have grown increasingly scarce. Though it once ranged from Tierra del Fuego to the equator, the Andean condor, or Vultur gryphus, now is considered under threat, and conservationists estimate only 5,000 remain in the wild. Already it is extinct in Venezuela and numbers are dwindling elsewhere. Most now circle the peaks that straddle Argentina and Chile. Fewer than 200 condors have been bred in zoos. Some of their female offspring were recently released in California to boost the numbers of native condor cousins there. Ecologists now want to recapture these females, which are also tagged with microchips, and let them loose above the Andes.

According to tradition, condors choose when to end their long lives. Scientists caution that such myths may have begun when Indians watched weakened birds fall to their deaths, but local tribes insist that a venerable bird will strive to fly higher than ever before, only to descend straight down and dash itself against a cliff. If the microchips prove durable, in 80 years biologists may get hard evidence of whether ageing condors commit suicide.