On January 14, over a hundred people gathered here at the future Patagonia National Park to watch three rehabilitated Andean Condors take flight for the first time in their young lives. The Andean Condor Release project—a collaboration between Conservacion Patagonica, UNORCH, and SAG (Chile’s agricultural and wildlife ministry)—has worked to re-release these enormous birds back into the wild. As fledglings, the three condors fell out of their nest, after failing to take flight. Someone found them and turned them into SAG, who in turn transported them to the Raptor Rehabilitation Center in Santiago. After approximately a year and a half there, the condors were ready to fly once again. Originally from Aysen, they made the return trip two months ago, when we installed them in a pre-release facility midway up the Chacabuco Valley.
There they became accustomed to their surroundings, and the day finally arrived for them to test their wings. Given their large size and weight, condors can only fly when there’s wind—they have to catch currents to soar. In captivity, these condors never had the chance to practice. The evening before the release, the team dismantled the pre-release facility while the condors were in their night enclosure. The next morning, when we opened the door of the enclosure, the condors stepped out into the open Chacabuco Valley.
The crowd had gathered for this very moment. Luckily, the condors put on a good show perching on a large boulder, stretching out their wings, hopping around, and investigating their surroundings before finally taking flight. Biologist and condor expert, Dr. Eduardo Pavez, has led over 100 condor release events and still marvels, “each one seems like the first, and you never know exactly what the condors will do.” Within minutes of their release, the condors were circling the crowd high overhead. As Kris Tompkins, President of Conservacion Patagonica, put it, “For a moment you see through the condor’s eyes, and think about what it must be like to fly for the first time. I had tears in my eyes.”
Right before the release, Dr. Pavez discussed the importance of the release event to the future of this species. As he put it, the release represents not the end of the project, but its progression to the next phase in which we’ll follow these birds through satellite chips installed in their wings (complete with solar panels to keep the batteries charged). GPS tracking is the only way to monitor these far-roaming birds, which can travel up to 800 km. Through tracking these condors, we’ll learn not only how they’re surviving in the wild, but also about the movements and habits of the resident condors of the park, never before studied.
Moreover, the condor release project builds a strong interest in this emblematic species, and conservation as a whole. Currently listed as near-threatened, Andean Condors face direct persecution by ranchers, who hunt or poison them out of misguided fear that they eat livestock, while simultaneously suffering from the decline of large-scale ranching across Patagonia. In previous decades, condors thrived on ample carcasses from sheep estancias. However, as sheep ranching has grown less economically viable in Patagonia and livestock has diminished, condor populations have declined. Condors reproduce very slowly, and only when food is available. The quantity of large-mammal carcasses available in an ecosystem is the only limiting factor to condor population.
The future Patagonia National Park, Dr. Pavez explained, is important for the future of the species as an area in which large native herbivores (mainly guanacos) are returning in force, as a food source for condors. The condors’ population may likely decline in the gap in food resources between the falloff of ranching and return of native herbivores. The park, with its already-thriving population of guanacos, will be an important refuge for them.
Moreover, community events such as the condor release reinforce the relationship between people and wildlife. As Cristian Saucedo, Conservation Director at Conservacion Patagonica, put it, “most of us see condors just as a tiny dot in the sky. Seeing them up-close and taking part in this milestone in their lives, builds our connection to this species.”
Cristian and Veronica Venegas, in charge of Conservacion Patagonica’s community outreach work, organized numerous visits of Cochrane schoolchildren to visit the condors in the weeks leading up to the release. The visits culminated in a competition to name the condors. The winners? “Andino,” which was submitted by Martina Cortés in second grade, because they live in the Andes. Then there is “Rey,” submitted by Francisca Antipa in fourth grade, because on Chile’s national shield, both the condor and huemul deer wear crowns. And finally, “Col Col,” submitted by Bastián Segovia in second grade, who meant to write “Colo-colo,” the name of the famous Chilean soccer team (but Col Col sounds better anyway).
Many of the students returned for the day of the release, bringing their families along with them. The municipality of Cochrane provided a free shuttle to bring those interested to the gathering, located about 15km east of the main park headquarters.
With the condors now released and flying free, we’ll continue to track them with satellite chips, learning about their vast movements and sharing these lessons with those far and near!