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Flight of the condor

Condor, Californian, Bitter Creek Wildlife Refuge, California   | Photo Credit: Vivek Menon

Catch him as he flies over your head,” Joseph yelled and I waved an oversized butterfly-net in the air with the hope of netting one of the world’s rarest birds. The air trembled with anticipation for just a nanosecond and then was rent apart with an almighty whoosh. Twenty kilograms plus of feathers swept past me, yanking the net and my outstretched arms backwards with such force that I nearly toppled over.

The young condor, the largest bird in the American skies, landed on a bare stump and evacuated almost immediately. Before the utter insanity of trying to catch a Californian condor in a butterfly net hit me, Fred had descended on the sitting bird with a companion net, and we had a three-year-old bird safely in our custody.

The few ornithologists and birdlovers gathered outside the massive fly-pens of the Bitter Creek Wildlife Refuge cheered and then clustered around to watch the tagging and marking of the bird. I held on to the head and feet of the massive bird; a veterinarian from San Diego zoo held the wings. The black feet were well padded and ended in large hook-like talons. The bill was, surprisingly, not sharp but had minute tooth-like serrations on its inner-edge.

Purple tags

Joseph quickly selected an appropriate feather that would not be shed soon and clipped an oversized purple tag with ‘61’ emblazoned on it. “All purple tags are Number 6”, Joseph tell us, “and the number on this tag, 61, is the identity of this bird. This will tell us that this is a three-year-old bird fledged in San Diego and brought here for the release”. Joseph was chatty, with a missionary zeal in transferring the enormous knowledge he had, working with the US Fish and Wildlife Service project on the reintroduction of the condor to the small group of conservation watchers. “Look at those adults flying over the pen. They are now wild birds.” I could see a large bird with a 54 purple tag. “So that is 6-54, a female who is four years old. She has a nest in the wild with a wild fledgling. She comes to the pen only to feed once in a while.”

His dreadlocks swung in my face, as he leant forward to attach a small satellite transponder to the other wing of the captive. As the punch clipped into the vane of the wing, the young condor had had enough. “Watch out,” Joseph yelled, but a second too late. With a monstrous upheaval of his rear, the conservation icon of the Americas pooped a load of white uric acid on my hands and lap. Covered in condor glory, I stumbled with the prize catch to release it back into the flight pen. It would be several months before the bird was finally released into the wild.

Once outside, I soaked in the glorious Californian sun and looked up at the massive birds that cast gigantic shadows on the morning. On their broad wings, they shouldered the weight of conservation optimism, not only for themselves but also for so many more imperilled species.

In the Pleistocene age, condors flew over pretty much all of America, eating the carcasses of fallen mammoths. With the decline of the large animals, the condor’s range shrank as well. By the 20th century, condors were found only on the western shores of the U.S., and even there, were on their way out.

The Beebian prophecy

In 1906, William Beebe, an eminent American naturalist, wrote, “Within a few years, at most, the last few individuals will have perished.” But the Beebian prophecy was never to be. Even though the strychnine left out to kill ground squirrels, and then the lead in the shots used to kill animals that the condors preyed on poisoned the American wilds, the bird held out till the 1980s, when the last individual was taken into captivity after a huge furore, many legal cases, and a controversy such as the conservation world had never seen before.

Should “the last essence of wild nature, a creature that shrank from human contact and for whom the last best hope was to leave it sequestered in glorious isolation and to pray that it would somehow pull through this bottleneck crisis of a poisoned landscape,” as described by Mark Cocker, be the way out, or should conservation breeding save the birds? As it turned out, the courts and the federal government ruled in favour of conservation breeding to save the birds, and Igor, the last truly wild condor, came to San Diego Zoo in 1987.

Twenty years later, I found myself among a small group invited by Santa Barbara Zoo and the USFWS to participate in tagging two birds in Bitter Creek. “Today, there are 300 birds in the wild in California, Arizona and Utah,” says Joseph, “and a 100 more in captivity.” So, a bird that flew millions of years in its wild state, was declared extinct in the wild for a short 57 months and then reintroduced back to the Golden State was now no longer extinct in the wild.

What a story of optimism, perseverance, political will and evidence-based conservation! The learnings in captive breeding, double-clutching, foster parenting, behavioural conditioning of the birds to electric wires, the veterinary interventions to save poisoned condors are the stuff of legend. What a story of optimism, perseverance, political will and evidence-based conservation! It’s a story we in India can’t afford to ignore, when the largest bird in the sub-continent, the great Indian bustard, teeters on a similar edge. In 1973, when I was still in school, there were less than two dozen condors in the wild. We have about 150 bustard left today. To give up on them would be catastrophic. Can the flight of the condor give new wings to the bustard?

Founder and CEO of the Wildlife Trust of India, the writer is an acclaimed author and conservationist.

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Printable version | Jan 22, 2022 7:32:20 PM |

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