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How many Andean condors are left in Colombia? The national bird is close to extinction in the country and faces a great (human) threat

Byeditorial

Jun 2, 2021

(CNN Spanish) – Two Andean condors appeared dead in Colombia in the last hours, as confirmed by local authorities who ask that those who see other wounded or threatened specimens give notice so that they can be helped. The condor, Colombia’s national bird, symbol of freedom on its shield, is in danger of extinction in the country, and one of the great threats it faces comes precisely from humans: the poisoning of carrion.

How many condors are there really left in Colombia?

The figures from the first condor census carried out in the history of Colombia show a grim picture. A simultaneous observation made in February in 84 points of the country allowed the identification of 63 specimens in Colombian territory, as reported by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

Biologist Adriana Collazos (left) and Carlos Becerra, a member of the National Natural Parks of Colombia, participate in the national census of Andean condors in the Purace National Natural Park, in Colombia, on February 13, 2021. (Credit: Luis Robayo / AFP via Getty Images)

“It is likely that the country has fewer condors than previously thought,” says the WWF report on the census, in which more than 200 volunteers participated. Why? Fausto Sáenz, scientific director of the Neotropical Foundation and who led the census, explained to CNN that the numbers that were previously handled accounted for 130 to 200 specimens (however, these figures came from isolated observations without a standardized methodology, he clarifies, for which cannot be directly compared, that is why it is spoken in terms of probability).

In danger of extinction in Colombia

Beyond comparison, the truth is that at the local level the condor “is very close to extinction,” explains Sáenz. In fact, in Colombia it is considered critically endangered, although it is a situation that cannot be generalized to the continent because countries like Chile have much larger populations (the condor, by the way, is also present in the Chilean coat of arms, and in those of Bolivia and Ecuador).

At the South American level, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) considers the Andean condor a “vulnerable” species. It is estimated that there are about 6,700 specimens of mature age and that the number is decreasing.

andean-condor-three.jpg

An Andean condor photographed in the Puracé National Natural Park, in Colombia, on February 13, 2021. (Credit: Luis Robayo / AFP via Getty Images)

In March, scientists warned in a letter published in the magazine Science that the condor is advancing “rapidly” towards its extinction.

A first difficulty condors face is strictly biological: they have low reproduction rates, Saenz explained. They reach reproductive age around eight years and lay only one egg every two to three years. Their first attempts, in many cases, are not viable (by the way, a note about the reproduction of the condor: it is a monogamous species, and both parents incubate the egg. The young remain with them for up to two years, according to information from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS)).

And when it comes to reproduction, the census data generated a “first warning” because more adult condors were identified than young ones, a factor that could affect reproduction rates.

A threat in the hands of humans: the poisoned carrion

The authorities of the Commission of the Regional Autonomous Corporation of Santander explained that in one of the condors found dead at the weekend there were indications of poisoned carrion ingestion. And they made a call to the population: do not leave carrion with poison. This is, in fact, one of the great threats that condors face.

These birds are mainly scavengers, that is, they feed on the meat of dead animals. However, under certain circumstances they can attack live animals (in a very low proportion, points out Sáenz) and this has generated a bad image for them. As a result, in some places carrion is poisoned to affect them.

In some communities this technique is also used against other animals, such as pumas and bears, according to Sáenz, and in these cases the condor ends up being harmed.

The problem of carrion poisoning is not limited to Colombia. In 2018, for example, 34 specimens died in Argentina after eating “deliberately” poisoned remains to eliminate “mammals that are perceived as predators of livestock,” according to the letter published in Science.

Killing of Andean condors in Argentina 0:39

In addition, there are other factors that threaten condor populations in South America such as lead contamination, illegal capture and shooting, according to scientists.

The bird that cleans

Despite this fame, condors provide a great service to ecosystems. A service, one could say, of cleaning (in fact, explains the WCS, “they are part of the family Cathartidae, which comes from the Greek kathartes, which means “the one who cleanses”).

By feeding on carrion, Sanez explained, condors “facilitate the decomposition of this organic matter, reducing the probability of transmission of zoonotic diseases and diseases that could also affect the human population.”

An Andean condor photographed in the Puracé National Natural Park, in Colombia, on February 12, 2021. (Credit: Luis Robayo / AFP via Getty Images)

In addition, they reduce the possibility of water sources near the carrion being contaminated by decaying matter.

For the expert from the Neotropical Foundation, it is important to understand that “the condor is a species that, more than an enemy, is an opportunity, it is an opportunity for the communities that live with it.”

And it is that in addition to providing these services to the ecosystem, the condor can be beneficial for communities for economic activities such as tourism or bird watching.

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