We Can Prevent Our Andean Condor’s Demise

On November 23rd, one of the last specimens held in captivity in Venezuela passed away at the Chorros de Milla Park in Mérida. Stopping their extinction means saving their habitat

Photo: National Geographic

This piece originally appeared in our sister site, Cinco8.

A few weeks ago, National Geographic published a research article about the Venezuelan glaciers, led by a group of scientists from the Universidad de Los Andes. The last snowy summit from a glacier we have left is the one from the La Corona glacier on the Humboldt mountain peak, and the reason it hasn’t melted away is because it’s located in a “shade side,” on the face of the mountain away from the morning sun. But Venezuela will be the first country in the world to lose its glaciers, an irreversible reality forewarned by many, from Carsten Braun to musician Jorge Drexler.

There’s a growing risk, with many variables, associated with the Andean condor (Vultur gryphus) in our land, and we better act now: On November 23rd, we lost one of the eleven condors we had left.

Fewer Than 20 Condors in 6,566 Square Kilometers

In the ecological chain of the Andes, species with large morphologic, ethologic, and physiologic capabilities coexist, which allow them to adapt to the environment; at over 4,000 meters above sea level, only those with the best skills can survive, like the Andean condor, one of the iconic faces–along with the glaciers–of the mountain range.

From the La Culata mountains in Venezuela to the Tierra del Fuego in the Chilean Patagonia, Andeans have seen the condor fly above them and have even included it as a national symbol of the post-colonial republics in their flags and national coats of arms. This, however, hasn’t stopped the species from being threatened. A study led by the Wildlife Conservation Society, published in May 2020, estimates that around 6,700 adult specimens are left in the continent. This population is labelled as critically endangered in Colombia and Venezuela, endangered in Ecuador and Peru, vulnerable in Bolivia and Chile, and not classified in Argentina. There are really few corners in the Andes where the condor is allowed to live risk-free.

And of those countries, Venezuela is the one with the least amount of specimens, both in captivity and in the wild.

Since the northern Andes in Venezuela and the highest summits in the Perijá mountain chain register lower altitudes than the southern Andes, the condor chooses the mountain ranges in Argentina, Chile, or Bolivia to settle and reproduce, while the Venezuelan Andes are used as temporary paths.

In the mid-nineties, the Andean condor was considered disappeared from Venezuela for some 35 years, since poaching helped lower an already limited population. At the time, the Fundación Bioandina, led by biologist María Rosa Cuesta in agreement with the Banco Andino, planned a reinsertion laboratory for the Andean condor: the Andean Condor Conservation Program. Specimens were released gradually in the high moors of the Sierra Nevada and the Sierra de La Culata, which made an impression and encouraged institutions like the Corporación Merideña de Turismo (Cormetur) and the National Parks Institute (Inparques) to get involved, raising awareness and sensitivity in the communities.

But that generous initiative, which would be echoed in similar agreements with foreign institutions such as the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, the San Diego Zoo, and even NASA, was eclipsed by  political unease. Out of the 6,566 km2 which make up the occasional area where the Andean condor is found, 61% is protected under the Área Bajo Régimen de Administración Especial (Abrae) legal entity; sometimes it’s a natural monument, sometimes a national park.

Today, it’s estimated that under 50 adult individuals exist in the wild and, until Sunday, November 22nd, there were 11 in captivity.

On November 23rd, 2020, that number went down to 10 specimens, because Kashik Nareupa, the Andean condor at the Los Chorros de Milla Zoo in Mérida State, passed away. The official report points to hepatic jaundice and kidney failure as the cause of death.

A bird of distinction: Meta, an Andean condor
safe at Biocontacto, in Mérida city.

Photo: Biocontacto

Oficial Cormetur announcement regarding Kashik Nareupa’s death, the Andean condor from the Los Chorros de Milla Zoo, Mérida:

There are two physiological types in animal species: r-strategists and k-strategists. One of their main differences is their longevity. R-strategists have a high reproductive rate and die quickly, k-strategists (where the Andean condor belongs) have long lives, and a low reproductive rate. The Andean condor is an omnivore and carrion eater, so it has a varied diet. Besides, its slow digestive system allows them, as many other k-strategists, to spend semi-prolonged periods of time without having to eat. All of this, as a result of the inhospitable environment they usually live in, makes the Andean condor an organism adapted to extreme survival, with a lifespan of between 60 and 80 years of age. Kashik Nareupa died at 17 years old.

Looking for someone to blame won’t bring Kashik Nareupa back and neither will it give Inparques the resources it needs to give Combatiente–the specimen at Mifafí station–proper captivity conditions; it won’t give the Bararida Zoo in Barquisimeto what it needs to look after their six specimens. The only thing left to do is mirror the condor’s behaviour in its competitiveness: move forward and focus.

A Zoo Isn’t Enough

In this regard, Dr. Felipe Pereira, founder and director of Biocontacto, revolutionized the handling of animal species with an unprecedented paradigm in Venezuela: the wildlife Biopark, a zoo, botanical garden, aquarium, and museum hybrid of natural and anthropological history. Founded in 2008, in the middle of the urban area in the city of Mérida, Biocontacto seeks to, in the words of Pereira, “recover wild species which have been subjected to trafficking and illegal possession, look for reinsertion possibilities to their natural habitats and educate visitors in environmental issues.”

Out of the ten protected Andean condor specimens in captivity, one of them is in Biocontacto. Its name is Meta, a 20-year-old male who has been under the care of Pereira and his team since the biopark was opened. “When the Fundación Bioandina ran out of resources, as the result of the Banco Andino going bankrupt, we requested Meta’s transfer to Biocontacto,” Pereira says. “The specimen came to us in 2008 from the San Diego Zoo, with the purpose of opening up the possibilities for the biopark to have ground-breaking workshops in environmental education, where visitors not only listen to a talk, but also have direct contact with the species, making a bigger impact.”

It doesn’t make sense to have the Andean condor reproduce in captivity as a viable strategy to preserve the species.

Unlike regular zoos, bioparks design wellbeing routines and veterinary training, suitable for those rescued species to overcome traumas by abuse and improve their physical conditions. On that subject, Pereira points out that “the follow-up we do on Meta is permanent. From its diet to the weekly weigh-ins, as well as parasite removal, these are all rigorous processes which Meta has to go through to keep an ideal weight and its training possible. For example, Meta receives a monthly check-up for ectoparasites and every six months for endoparasites; its diet has to be rich in vitamin A and D, entrails, meat and bones, and Meta is also given prey as a nutritional complement, since it’s important for the Andean condor to ingest animal skin and fur.”

Unlike the Peruvian or Argentinian Andes, the Venezuelan Andes aren’t as vast, therefore, its ecosystems present less biodiversity. This reality is accentuated with the progress of agricultural barriers and climate change, and with the loss of space in the high moors of Mérida, with lost ecological balance and no feeding resources for condors and other species, also under threat, like the puma. This is what Biocontacto tells their visitors, betting on environmental education. “If we have moors filled with packs of wild dogs, which hunt, for example, white tailed deer, not only will the deer be in danger, but the condor as well, since its natural diet will be altered if it can’t eat the deer. So the condor will move to other places, where large herbivores are more available,” Pereira states.

It’s not an easy task to reinsert the Andean condor into Venezuelan ecosystems, since even projects coming from the private sector, such as Biocontacto have to face serious limitations to execute sustainable ideas. “It doesn’t make sense to have the Andean condor reproduce in captivity as a viable strategy to preserve the species,” Felipe Pereria points out. “Likewise, before we think of reproducing and reinserting specimens in the high moors of Mérida, it’s necessary for these ecosystems to have the proper conditions for them to survive and adapt without support. If the Venezuelan Andes already present natural disadvantages to harbour the condor in high numbers, humans should avoid worsening the whole situation. That’s why the main focus should be to protect these natural ecosystems where the condor lives. As social actors we must promote strategies which aim for environmental sustainability.”

Mérida might have a cable car and a biopark that put us just a few meters away from a glacier and a condor, respectively, but the Venezuelan environmental sensitivity shouldn’t just be about admiring them; it should also consider the bases of preservation. Although the humanitarian crisis is flagged as the most urgent of them all, it’s necessary to understand that the environmental crisis also needs to be documented, denounced, and above all, addressed.