Ecuador: Observing Condors

Watching Wild and Captive Condors at Hacienda Zuleta in Ecuador

By Karin-Marijke Vis

A captive condor at the Condor Huasi project.
A captive condor at the Condor Huasi project. Coen Wubbels photos.

It was almost like a dance: seven rambunctious AndeanCondors hopping around chunks of mule and calf. On other days the carrion might be alpaca, sheep, or rabbit. Males generally have the first go but Awu is a female that is able to stand up for herself and makes sure she gets the piece she wants to have. When two condors wanted the same piece they each tore on a side of it as if it were a game of tug-of-war.

The Andean Condor in Ecuador

It is estimated that only 50-60 wild Andean Condors (Vultur gryphus) remain in Ecuador and as such they are considered a near threatened species by the IUCN. Despite a recent three-year study on the subject it remains unclear what exactly causes their low number.

One of the assumptions was that maybe there wasn’t enough food for the condors due to Ecuador’s urbanization and expansion of agricultural land, but the study doesn’t confirm this thought. Another aspect they looked into was lead poisoning, as this almost eradicated the Californian Andes in the U.S. years ago. Again, this doesn’t seem a significant cause.

A condor dance at the reserve.
A condor dance at the reserve.

Having said that, getting shot clearly is one of the causes. For example, the condor Reina Pacha got 59 pellets in her body.

Miraculously she didn’t die. Farmers may fear that these largest flying land birds in the Western Hemisphere will attack their calves, or the shooting is done by a hunter who wants a trophy.

The government is taking action and when a hunter recently proudly presented his catch on Facebook, he was easily caught and is currently serving time in jail for the crime.

The Cóndor Huasi Project

The scavengers live in huge aviaries at one of Ecuador’s oldest farmsteads: the 17th century Hacienda Zuleta, in the Andes Mountains northeast of Quito. Around 1996, the hacienda’s owners founded the Galo Plaza Lasso Foundation, a nonprofit institution.

One of their projects is the Cóndor Huasi Project, a protection, reproduction and reintroduction project of condors in Ecuador. The foundation works together with the Ministry of Environment, Quito’s Zoological Foundation and others involved in trying to preserve the Andean Condor.

Dining condor.
Dining condor.

The seven condors at the hacienda, brought in wounded, sick or captured, have been in too much contact with humans to be released. The goal is to breed with them and to release the newborns.

This sounds easier than it is: a condor only starts breeding at the age of seven, has only one egg every two years, and will care for the chick for two years. The birds are monogamous and matching condors in perfect couples isn’t a foregone conclusion either.

Thus far Rucu, a 40-year-old male and the 20-year-old Awu had three eggs. One egg didn’t hatch and of the two that did, the chicks died. So the caretakers recently formed new couples in the hope of better results. According to Yann, an employee at the hacienda, it seems that Rucu and the 20-year-old Reina Pacha get along well, as do Awu and her new companion called Inti.

Wild Condors

Selecting meat for the condors.
A park worker selecting meat for the condors.

There are wild condors at the hacienda as well. As I was on my way to the project, two condors were gliding the thermals against a cloudy sky, rising higher and higher.

The black vultures are characterized by a ruff of white feathers around the base of the neck and white patches on the wings. They are among the heaviest flying birds in the world and with their wingspan up to ten feet, the sight was majestic.

Yann monitors the hacienda’s wild condors. As these birds often perch on the aviaries, he can photograph them at close range. In the last couple of months he has identified eleven condors. By watching the captive condors I could see how their heads and necks are almost featherless and that the males have a wattle on the neck.

Folklore, Mythology, and National Symbol:In a way I find the condors simultaneously ugly and fascinating. I’m not the only one, nor the first. Yann explains that these condors still play an important role in the local folklore and mythology and I have seen the animals depicted on many ancient handicrafts. As Yann commented, “It appears that Andean Condors are often both revered and feared.”

Among other things, the Incas associated the Andean Condor with the sun deity and the vulture has been considered a symbol of power of health by many South Americans. The condor is seen as a source of pride and as a result has become a national symbol of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.

A rare site--a wild condor at Zuleta.
A rare site–a wild condor at Zuleta.

One More Dance

Miguel, another employee at Zuleta, is in charge of feeding the condors. He buys and kills animals from the surrounding communities to feed the hacienda’s captive condors – three couples and a male. The feeding happens every other day, based on the thought that wild condors most likely don’t eat every day either.

When I asked Miguel if he had a favorite condor, he immediately pointed to Reina Pacha, and smiled. I asked why. “She is a powerful condor and initially didn’t allow me to get up close to her. In fact, she picked me twice in the arm. But now we are friends.”

 A condor at the park.
A condor at the park.

After the three condor couples (each couple has its own enclosure) had been given their food and we had watched the spectacle, Miguel walked to Pimampiro’s cage, the single male condor in a separate aviary. Miguel put the meat on a hook attached to an elastic line and strung it to a bar in the cage. “Sometimes we like to give the condors something to play with or to challenge them,” Yann explained.

Pimampiro took up the challenge. It was as if it was trying to eat without his hands, pulling the meat towards him and tearing a piece off with his hooked beak, after which the meat bounced back. He could have used his claws to keep it pinned to the ground – the meat was hanging low enough –but he just didn’t and seemed enjoy the challenge.

Further Information

– The Cóndor Rehabilitation Project can only be visited by Hacienda Zuleta’s guests and is not otherwise open to the public.

– Other activities at the hacienda include horseback riding, hiking, mountain biking, visiting their cheese farm, the organic farm, and various projects such as the embroidery workshop.

– For more information, see Hacienda Zuleta’s website.

– Other places to see condors in Ecuador are the Quito Zoo, or Parque Cóndor not far from Ibarra. The latter has a couple of condors as well as many other birds of prey. The owner, Joep, daily gives flight demonstrations with eagles, falcons and other raptors.

Karin Marijke Vis
Karin Marijke Vis

Karin-Marijke Vis and her partner Coen Wubbels, photographer, have been overlanding in Asia and South America since 2003. They have been assigned the Overlanders of the Year Award 2013. They work as a freelance duo. Their work has been published in 4WD/car monthlies and in travel magazines. Follow them on landcruisingadventure.com and instagram/photocoen.

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