I never thought I would see a condor. My vision of a condor was as remote and fictional as that of a phoenix. But on a recent visit to Ecuador, I was able to get up close and personal with a group of seven of the mighty birds at the Condor Huasi project on the grounds of Hacienda Zuleta.
There are only an estimated 60 wild Andean Condors left in Ecuador. The dynamics are against the great winged creatures, due to destruction of their natural habitat and indiscriminate killing. It doesn’t help that the condors don’t reach sexual maturity until sometime after their seventh year of age, and then they lay only one egg every two years. Unlike many of their human counterparts, the condors mate for life. One can only hope they choose their partners wisely, since the life expectancy of an Andean Condor is about 60 years. It could seem like forever in the company of the wrong bird.
The Condor Huasi project at Hacienda Zuleta is populated by Andean Condors that have been salvaged from various types of captivity. The goal of the project is two-fold. First, the sanctuary seeks to rehabilitate the birds and promulgate a successful breeding program. It was a momentous occasion when one condor couple successfully produced a hatchling last year. Regretfully, their parental skills were lacking and in the course of their ineptness, the chick died. The second objective of Condor Huasi is to provide an educational platform in an effort to foster the survival of the Andean Condor in the wild. Members of the local communities – especially the children – are encouraged to visit the sanctuary and be involved in the program. It is hoped that personal interaction with the condors will encourage a higher level of preservation consciousness among the Ecuadorian people.
Just as rare as the Andean Condors in his care is the man who oversees the sanctuary, Yann Potaufeu. Yann left his job at a zoo in France to live an isolated existence here in the foothills of the Andes studying the birds. His dream is to see one of the condor couples successfully breed, to help raise the chick, and to prepare it for release into the wild.
From time to time, a wild condor will approach the sanctuary in full-winged flight, and occasionally perch on the enclosure to take a closer look. Seeing the captive and wild birds eye each other, it is easy to imagine the caged birds envying their free brother’s liberty. But then, perhaps the wild bird feels a pang of jealousy at the sight of the caged birds’ hand-delivered meals. Maybe the grass is always greener on the other side of the cage.
As I stood watching the condors, I felt I was in the presence of prehistoric creatures, something not of this world. I hope my feeling was not prescient.
The Condor Huasi Sanctuary is one of several worthwhile community projects sponsored by the Gallo Plaza Lasso Foundation.