Soaring high in the skies over Baja California’s Sierra San Pedro Martir Park is a growing number of California Condors (Gymnogyps californianus), Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. For those who have worked for years on the project to reintroduce them to their Pacific coast territories, the sight represents a significant success. These birds, identifiable by GPS enabled number tags on their 3m wingspan, have been hand-reared and taught how to be condors by team members at San Diego Zoo Global, an SOS grantee.
Innovative methods such as feeding hatchlings by condor-like hand puppets to hardwire parenting skills into the young birds’ brains for later in life, have fast-tracked the species’ revival from the edge of extinction. But cleaning up the food chain is key to the species’ long-term survival prospects according to Dr. Allyson Walsh. Walsh is Associate Director, Applied Animal Ecology at the Institute for Conservation Research, San Diego Zoo Global, the team instrumental in all elements of the re-introduction attempt including captive breeding, release and monitoring, awareness and outreach programs as well as capacity building and skills transfer to the team’s Mexican colleagues (Juan Vargos, Caty Porras and Mohammed Saad).
Feeding on large animal carcasses, Condors play a valuable role in broader ecosystem health through disposing of carrion which would otherwise be a breeding ground for disease. Ironically eating the leftovers could lead to their demise if the bigger issue of lead poisoning is not mitigated through community education and even legislative change. As adults, condors from the programme may unwittingly feed their wild-born hatchlings, carrion from free ranging cattle and wild game contaminated with lead bullet fragments. Fortunately change is in effect, through awareness raising campaigns at the community level in Mexico spearheaded by the bi-national Condor team, and a broader movement lobbying at the national level in the US. If lead free bullets become a legal requirement or preference for hunters north and south of the border, the impact on carrion feeders including Condors could be profoundly positive. Another long-term challenge facing Condors is trash in their environment. Condors often collect micro-trash and take it back to their nests – where it is regurgitated with food for their nestling. Once ingested by a chick, the trash can obstruct its digestive tract and cause mortality.
With plans in the pipeline to engage with hunting lodges dotted around the bird’s territory in Baja California, Walsh explains the Condor message is secondary when engaging with hunters. Instead the strategy is to highlight the threat to human health from lead poisoning as a motivator to switch away from lead ammunition. Meanwhile her team have partnered up with a local NGO, Costa Salvaje to begin incorporating the message to “getting the lead out” into awareness-raising among the general public distributing t-shirts and commissioning a giant hand-painted mural in the nearby city of Ensenada which illustrates the links between lead poisoning and condor health. General awareness about the Condors and this human link to their plight is low and Walsh is aware timing is everything with communications.
Focusing on day-trippers to Sierra San Pedro Martir Park over the busy Easter holiday period, The Condor team plan to speak with visitors about the ecosystem role and the lead issue threatening the bird. An estimated 7,000 people will visit the Park over the holiday presenting conservationists with a valuable opportunity to spread the message and build support for the rise of the Condor in its ancestral home.