The first California condors to enter the wild in 5 years took a few hesitant hops on a sandstone cliff, craned pinkish necks over the precipice and tentatively tested their nine-foot-plus wings. Since that land mark launch in 1992, wildlife biologists have released nearly 200 condors that were born and raised in captivity, and they have prospered! The world population has rebounded from 22 in 1987 to 396 birds, with wild populations concentrated in Baja California, Arizona, and southern and central California. As these giant scavengers move to reoccupy their full 7 million square mile range, scientists are using state of the art technology to guide the Pleistocene period survivors toward full self sustainability. They are counting on this and other unusual inventions, such as swapping infertile for fertile eggs, to ensure their full recovery.
Jesse Grantham, coordinator of the US fish and wildlife service’s condor recovery programme can track every 17 pound and over bird using radio transmitters and solar powered GPS. These send 1000 locator points per day, if a bird stays in one place for too long it usually means they are in trouble. A rescue team is scrambled to trek through remote canyons go and help the condor. The traking also allows scientists to determine where important breeding caves are and ensure they are protected.
The main threat to Condors remains the same as it did 25 years ago, lead bullet fragments that lodge in the bodies of carrion. Some nine out of 10 condors have elevated lead levels, a problem that persists despite a ban on the use of lead bullets within the condor habitat in California. Bottle caps, DDT, high voltage power lines and the occasional shooting also contribute, which means the environment still presents “all the mortality factors that nearly caused their extinction.
With the telemetry records, scientists and conservationists are working to remove what dangers they can from the birds range. If only something could be done about the lead.