In pre-Hispanic times, the Andean Condor was known as “Apu Kuntur,” a divine messenger from Inti, the Sun God.
Today, it is an endangered species, illegally captured for festivals, illegally hunted for its feathers and body parts to sell to tourists and use in shamanic rituals, and accidentally poisoned and starved due to human encroachment on its natural habitat.
This week, environmental authorities from Peru’s southern department of Arequipa and local officials from the Colca Canyon launched a campaign to drum up support for proposed legislation to protect and conserve Peru’s dwindling condor population.
“Our best estimate, and this is a guesstimate, is that there are 300 to 500 condors in Peru,” Rob Williams, the Peru Country Program Director for Frankfurt Zoological Society, told the Peruvian Times. “They really are disappearing so fast, and this is the slowest reproducing bird of all the birds on the planet.”
A pilot plan to protect the species has been long in coming. Representatives from Universidad Nacional de San Antonio Abad del Cuzco, the Autonomous Authority of Colca and Annexes (Autocolca), the Andean Condor Working Group and the Frankfurt Zoological Society have been working together for definitive action.
“The Andean Condor is legally protected in Peru by Articles 308 and 309 of the Penal Code and Supreme Decree
034-2004. These laws prohibit hunting, capturing, possessing, transporting or trading in the species or its body parts and stipulate that such actions are theoretically punishable by up to four years in prison or up to a year community service.”
But the knowledge of the report’s authors, no one in Peru has been prosecuted — ever.
Some of the fatal pressure that the condor faces is not intentional. A widespread practice by Andean farmers of poising feral dogs, foxes and pumas to protect their livestock takes an unknown toll on the birds, which die from feeding on the contaminated carrion.
I am still trying to get my hands on a copy of the proposed legislation now in the works. Local officials are quoted as saying it stresses education and enforcement, and would seek to increase the penalty to a mandatory five-year prison term.
But implementing such legislation won’t be easy, especially if it is perceived as contravening the rights of indigenous communities to maintain their cultural identity — rights enshrined in Peru’s Constitution.
It is hard to predict how such a law would impact the legal status of the Shaman practicing ancient religious ceremonies. Or Peru’s iconic Yawar Fiesta (“celebration of blood” in the ancient Inca language, Quechua). This three-day ritual festival of music and dance is held annually at the end of July in 55 southern Andean communities.
A giant condor is strapped to the back of a bucking, twisting bull to symbolize the struggle between the indigenous Andean and conquering Spanish cultures. Although the condors are usually released after the celebration, scientists believe many are left too injured or traumatized to survive.
Williams said that female condors are caught for Yawar festivals much more frequently than males. That could be a partial explanation for recent studies showing an alarming imbalance in the sex ratio between adult male and female condors.
There are disproportionately fewer females in a species that does not reach sexual maturity until they are seven, Williams said.
Normally they don’t breed immediately, so probably the first time they try to reproduce is when they are eight or nine, and then ensuing breeding attempts are made every three to seven years.
“So best-case scenario, they breed every three years,” he said. “Worst case, it has been shown that some pairs breed only every seventh year and they raise one chick, if they’re lucky, and those chicks have a 45 percent natural survival rate to adulthood.”
But even that survival rate is an optimistic, outdated estimate.
“This is data taken during the 1970s, when there was still lots more food around, there weren’t people poisoning them, and things as such, in the way they are now,” Williams said. “This is a thing that takes a long time to turn around.”
Williams said he met in November with representatives from Autocolca, the government authority that administers the Colca Canyon.
“They know from their data that the number of condors is declining fast,” he said. “About four years ago, they were seeing an average of 50-plus a day. Now they’re seeing 20-something a day.”
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