California Condor: extinction is one step away

The splendid animal is on the verge of extinction due to man

by Lorenzo Ciotti
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California Condor: extinction is one step away

The California condor was considered a symbol of immortality and as such revered and respected by Native Americans. For the white man it became, at least until the beginning of the twentieth century, an animal to be hunted and destroyed by any means.

The first census carried out in the 1940s provided a truly worrying figure: only about sixty specimens were found in an area of ​​about 45,000 square kilometers that stretched, within California, from Santa Barbara along the Range coast to San Jose and along the western mountainous areas of the Sierra Nevada to the southern part of Madeira County northeast of Fresno.

The three surviving breeding areas consisted of the Mountain Beartrap area east of San Luis Obispo, the Sisquoc area north of Santa Barbara, and the Sespe-Piru area in Ventura and Los Angeles counties. The latter was considered the most important and consistent.

Unfortunately, Koford ignored the almost simultaneous sighting of two groups of condors, respectively of 85 and 37 specimens, carried out in 1942 by the talented ornithologist Donald McLean, and the estimates of the California Fish and Wildlife Service, which hypothesized the existence of over 150 condors.

The 60 individuals, accurately surveyed in the 1950s, would then have appeared, as they were, the sign of a catastrophic collapse and not a comforting fact of population stability. Koford then, backed by the National Audubon Society, was mistakenly convinced that the problems of the species stemmed exclusively from his aversion to man.

All the hopes of survival of the species were gambled on a very expensive land purchase program to build them into sanctuaries. In addition, severe limits were even placed on observations, in particular the affixing of radio collars.

As a result, it was not discovered until the late 1980s that lead poisoning was the main cause of condor decline. In fact, more than other vultures, they are victims of the ingestion of bullet fragments, which they find in the carcasses of wounded game not recovered by hunters.

Since the early 1940s, the managers of the San Diego Zoo had sensed that the species' only salvation would be in captive breeding. They meticulously prepared themselves, breeding specimens of the Andean condor, with a biology very similar to that of the Californian species.

In 1952 the zoo obtained a permit to capture a couple, to begin the experiment. The National Audubon Society, backed by Koford, obtained the clearing of the capture. In 1966, the California Department of Fisheries and Wildlife organized a census that reported the figure of at least 52 individuals.

the possible increase compared to the 1963 data was justified due to a different analysis system and a more complete coverage of the area occupied by the condor. It was believed that data from Miller and McMillan showed that the most significant loss suffered by this species was from illegally killed individuals.

From 1975 the decline became more evident; already around 1977 the censuses spoke of about forty individuals. The educational campaigns to sensitize people to the protection of the condor, the special natural sanctuaries set up to protect the condor in its environment, did not seem sufficient.

The serious problem of lead poisoning persists and this forces the authorities to capture all wild condors twice a year, to treat them, in case of danger, with a chelating product, which eliminates the dangerous metal from the body in a few hours.

Nevertheless, some specimens, not recovered in time, are still lost. In September 2008, a regulation came into force in California that prohibits lead-containing ammunition in all areas frequented by condors. In Arizona, however, the state distributes lead-free ammunition for free.