for National Geographic News
As the sun's first rays slant into the depths of Colca Canyon in southern Peru, Andean condors begin to ascend, riding morning thermals on outstretched wings as they scour the landscape for a meal of carrion.
A gaggle of tourists crowd the Cruz del Condor, or Condor Cross, canyon overlook, hoping to snap a keepsake image of the majestic birds.
"In the area around the Condor Cross there is a well-known permanent group," said Maurico de Romaña, an area hotelier and president of the conservation organization PRODENA-Arequipa. "On some occasions, when there is food, I have succeeded in observing 24 condors together."
The species is listed by the World Conservation Union as "vulnerable." One of the world's largest flying birds, the condor soars on ten-foot (three-meter) wingspans and can weigh up to 33 pounds (15 kilograms).
When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in South America in the 16th century, the giant vulture (Vultur gryphus) was a common sight. The bird flourished throughout its range from the northern tip of Venezuela down the spine of the Andes to the southern tip of Tierra del Fuego in Argentina.
But centuries of habitat loss, dwindling food supplies, human persecution, and the impact of the pesticide DDT on the bird's reproductive success have restricted once-robust populations of the bird to remote sections of the high Andes in Peru, Chile, and Argentina, according to conservationists.
Today, one of the best places to see the Andean condor is the semi-arid Colca Canyon, a marvel twice as deep as the Grand Canyon located about 100 miles (160 kilometers) north of Arequipa, Peru's second largest city.
Biologists in Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador are now busy reintroducing young condors hatched in North American zoos to fill in the current gaps in the birds' historical distribution in South America.
"The theory is, if we keep doing it, the birds will eventually breed naturally in the wild and populations will grow," said Alan Lieberman, a condor expert with the San Diego Zoo in California.
Andean condors have faced persecution over the years from farmers who believed the birds posed a threat to their livestock. But education campaigns have helped dispel that misconception, Lieberman said.
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