Peru's Andean Condors Are Rising Tourist Attraction

John Roach
for National Geographic News
July 22, 2004
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.

Condor Threats

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.

In the Purimac region of southeastern Peru, villagers tie a condor to a bull's back for traditional bullfights, which are held during annual Yawar Fiesta celebrations. The condors kills the bulls and are then set free. (The condors symbolize Inca resistance; the bulls, the Spanish conquistadors.)

Such festivals are not held in the Colca Canyon, however, and hunting and trapping of condors there is rare, according to Romaña, the Peruvian conservationist.

Tourist Threat?

Romaña said the greatest threat to the condors in Colca Canyon today comes from the busloads of tourists who arrive every morning at the Condor Cross overlook, park in what he calls "inadequate" parking lots, and leave a few hours later.

According to Romana, the uncontrolled tourism threatens to crowd out the condors from this traditional feeding ground.

The conservationist hopes to establish a national sanctuary to protect the condors in the canyon.

A decade ago, just a few thousand tourists made the trip from Arequipa to the Colca Canyon, while last year 60,000 made the journey, according to Romaña. He said he once thought the increased tourism would be a boon to the region's conservation. Now Romaña is less certain.

"It is a latent danger if it is not controlled," he said. "Neither the authorities nor the tourism operators have the concept or intention of protection."

To help protect the birds and promote responsible tourism, Romaña and a local architect have presented the Peruvian Ministry of Tourism with a plan for development of the Condor Cross that they say will reduce pressures on the birds.

The plan calls for what Romana terms adequate parking spaces for tourist buses and the construction of unobtrusive viewing areas for human visitors that preserve the natural characteristics of the canyon overlook.

Romaña also recommends that tourists visit the canyon with accredited tourist agencies, which he says are easily identifiable by price. "Today there are many agencies that offer irresponsible service at bargain rates," Romana said.

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