El Condor Pasa

If it were up to my younger self 20 years ago, I would not have been able to witness, let alone capture in pixels, such a magnificent sight at the Grand Canyon last month:

Condor H2 scans the tourists

Young H2, peering down at me here on the rim of the Grand Canyon, was born-n-raised there over the past year! Offspring of captive-bred Condors, H2 hatched around April 15, 2008 in a cave in the Salt Creek area below Grand Canyon Village, and left her natal nest on Oct 16th. She was captured, along with her mom, late June this year, to be fitted with that wing-tag and radio transmitter you can see in my picture above. She’s the only girl Condor to have hatched and fledged in the Canyon over the past two years (read more about the Grand Canyon Condors here). Here’s a map of where H2 has spent her still short life (click on the bubbles for more info):

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What’s really remarkable is that both her parents were, before being released into the wilds of the Canyon, born in captivity (Dad in Los Angeles Zoo and Mom in San Diego Wild Animal Park) and were both raised by puppets! And yet they’ve managed to pair up in the wilds of the Grand Canyon, set up home in a cave, and fledge offspring – multiple times!

All of which would never had happened if it had been up to my misguided youthfully zealous druthers a couple of decades ago! Thankfully, no one ever put me in charge of the world!!

I first heard about the California Condor Recovery Program in 1989, as a graduate student in the brand new Masters in Wildlife Science program at the Wildlife Institute of India (WII). I was a rather intense young man, quite strongly driven by idealistic notions of nature conservation and social justice – fellow students and colleagues may tell you I was quite the zealot about these things, to the point of being anti-social sometimes. The Condor program was introduced to us shiny-eyed grad students by some scientists from the US Fish and Wildlife Service (I’m sorry I’ve quite forgotten the names of individuals involved) visiting WII to start new collaborations. There was a presentation about the Condor captive breeding program which had just recently begun in the San Diego Wild Animal Park. In the mid 1980s, with the California Condor teetering on the brink of extinction, San Diego Zoo had taken the extraordinary step of capturing all remaining (22) individuals from the wild and bringing them into a captive breeding program. The ambition then was to rebuild the population in captivity, and eventually reintroduce the birds back into their wild habitats. Fantastic! What an ambitious project, with strong application of biological science to save a truly charismatic megafaunal beast! That was indeed exciting to the young biologist in me! At least at first…

But wait, asked my inner socialist (still alive, I’m afraid, if a bit jaded!): what was it going to cost, this ambitious project of yours, Dr. American Scientist? In the millions of US Dollars?! To save just one single species? Are you out of your mind? Do you know how many species – nay, entire ecosystems – could be saved with that much money in India? Or other parts of the developing tropical world, where poverty might be the biggest factor driving habitat loss and species extinctions, not lead from hunters’ bullets or conflicts with mega-ranchers? Oh the ego, the hubris of these Americans, I thought, to cause so much habitat destruction on the one hand, and to spend so much money saving just one of their own species! So typical!!

And so I got into a rather heated argument over the merits of the program with the American visitors. And I wasn’t alone in raising the question – I think most of my colleagues there were taken aback by the scale of the project, and either shared my concern about the potential waste of resources for one species, or perhaps envy that the Yanks had the druthers to try something like this! Such is the dilemma that conservationists have always had to struggle with in the constant triage that is the business of saving endangered species with limited budgets: should we spend the money on saving one species, often a charismatic warm and cuddly one, or spread it out trying to save habitats and ecosystems with many species no one may care or ever hear about? Will the public support our efforts (with $$) if we don’t have one of those charismatic flagship species on the banner of every project? These debates are, if anything, intensifying in the current times of economic recession, and nature conservation often takes a back seat to other pressing matters of human development, especially in the developing world. So it shouldn’t surprise you to know that I wasn’t too happy to learn about the California Condor Recovery Program 20 years ago.

And so, if I’d had my way, H2 would never have hatched in the cave overlooking the Grand Canyon, and my little girls never would have been able to see her up close (and some others of her tribe) soaring over the Canyon when we camped there for a weekend last month! And that would have been very sad indeed!

El Condor pasa

With my jaded hindsight, after two decades of living in America (it might amuse you to know that I migrated to San Diego for my Ph.D. the very next year after the Condor debate in WII, and availed myself of the San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Park to see many endangered species, including some I had sought, unsuccessfully, in the wild in India – but that’s another story for another day) where do I now stand on the Condors? I am thrilled at being privileged enough to see, with my children, a wild-born Condor soaring freely across one of the natural wonders of the world! I am therefore glad that the Americans went ahead and spent the money to save this one magnificent species, and are now beginning to bring it back in the wild. I also know now (and this still astonishes me) that the California Condor wasn’t really considered a charismatic species here – but was actively hunted because people thought this majestic scavenger killed their livestock!! So the Condor program was actually going against some popular opinion in trying to save the species. The program has had its share of other controversies too, including the continued use of lead shot by hunters in the release areas, and the decision to release them in the Grand Canyon where the species had gone extinct perhaps 10,000 years ago. Yet they’ve carried on, and have now rebuilt the population to around 362 animals, 76 of them in the Grand Canyon area! Birds are breeding in the wild, so there is increasing, but cautious optimism, that the species may truly re-establish into wild populations – and learn to avoid eating trash! So perhaps, in another 20 years, I hope my daughters will see many more of them in the American southwest: wild Condors with no tags or transmitters, untouched by human hand! Wouldn’t that be something?!

Afbeelding-2.pngMeanwhile, back in India, and indeed throughout Asia and Africa, other species of vultures have gone into precipitous decline over the past decade. For all the righteousness expressed by my generation of budding wildlife biologists in India, we completely failed to recognize the catastrophic decline of vultures throughout the subcontinent until it was almost too late! I’m sure you will find many other, better informed, accounts of this tragic story through other blog posts this International Vulture Awareness Day. And so, even as I chide my younger self for failing to recognize the tremendous potential for hope in saving the California Condor, not to mention the sheer thrill of seeing it in the wild, let me leave you today with these questions he would ask: Who will spend the many more millions of dollars to save all those other vultures now teetering on the brink? But, instead, of questioning the expense for a single species, I would now demand that humanity divert some of the money we spend in other expensive endeavours (oh, for instance, to kill each other in pointless wars) towards saving endangered species. And to my Indian colleagues: if the Americans, whom we want to ape in every other pop culture way, can do so much to save a species most of them don’t even like, can we not, in that “ancient culture” that still worships so many animals, find the means to save our vultures (instead of, say, killing our siblings pointlessly on glaciers 5 miles high)? I hope you will ponder that on this International Vulture Awareness Day. Let me also leave you with another hopeful image from the Grand Canyon (please visit my entire Condor gallery on Flickr for more images), of a pair of California Condors, resting peacefully in the afternoon sun just out of sight of most tourists below Desert View Tower on the south rim:

Afternoon relaxation

5 thoughts on “El Condor Pasa

  1. John

    Great post! One thing to keep in mind is that the condor program represents only a tiny portion of the federal budget. For example, in FY2006, the US government spent $372 million just on cruise missles. The condor program has cost about a tenth of that, spread over 20 years. Of course, it represents a much larger portion of the conservation funding, but even there it's not a strike against the condor program. It's a sign of how underfunded conservation is compared to other programs.

  2. Madhu

    Of course, the conservation budget is miniscule indeed. Let's not also forget those F-22s that couldn't fly missions because they were vulnerable to rain! I was, of course, rather naive about many of these things from real world economics.Nevertheless, it still remains the case that all too often conservation projects are left fighting each other for scraps from the economic table. We need to reduce that competition, and start pushing outward, rather than constantly struggling to justify many of our relatively small projects. Not sure how exactly to go about doing that, but I'm tired of the “zero-sum” thinking and trade-offs within that miniscule conservation budget.

  3. Cara Russell

    That's so great that they used puppets to help raise the condors – it just shows that creativity can really help with any situation – in this case, helping to keep a species from going extinct. Parents can keep Hand Puppets on hand for if they get a new baby animal or find a hurt one in their backyard to teach their kids about taking care of animals.

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