Conservation of the California Condor

The California Condor is on the verge of extinction. There were three individuals, all males, known to be living free in late 1986. That was a drop from fifteen wild birds (including five breeding pairs) known to have been present in 1984. Twenty-one condors were also alive in captivity toward the end of 1986. The species is a relic of the ice ages; its preserved remains have been found in the La Brea tar pits. With its giant relative Teratornis mettiami it picked the bones of mammoths and American camels that had expired in the ooze. Teratornis, even bigger than the condor -- its 12-foot wingspread and 50-pound weight making it perhaps the biggest bird ever to take to the air -- died out long before Europeans arrived in North America. By 1492 the condor was already retreating westward. Its bones were discovered in Florida early on, and recently its former presence in upper New York state was confirmed by Richard Laub of the Buffalo Museum of Science and David Stedman of the New York State Museum. When the '49ers were trekking to California, the condor had retired behind the Rockies, and it survived into the 20th century only in California and Baja California.

By World War II breeding condors were limited to California's southern Sierra Nevada, the Coast Range behind Santa Barbara, and the east-west ranges (Tehachapi Mountains) that connect the two across the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley. Considerably more than sixty birds were alive then. Since that time, the population has gradually declined. The causes of the condor's plight are several: shooting by hunters, poisoning with bait intended for coyotes, contamination of their food with DDT, other pesticides and lead, egg collecting by unscrupulous oologists, general harassment, food scarcity (mammoths and camels no longer exist in California and numbers of domestic stock are declining), and habitat destruction.

The question of how to save the condors has been strongly debated in the conservation community. A distinguished panel set up jointly by the National Audubon Society and the American Ornithologists' Union despaired of being able to save the species in the wild. The panel was convinced that irresponsible hunters would continue to shoot the condors, that the birds could not be protected from pesticide contamination, and that their habitat would continue to shrink and deteriorate. To learn more of their biology, the panel recommended initiation of a "hands-on" conservation program, including capturing of most remaining adults, keeping them captive long enough to determine their sex (by means of a simple surgical procedure), and placing radio transmitters on them, before releasing them.

The centerpiece of the program, which was adopted, was captive breeding. The single egg normally laid in each nest would be removed (the female will often lay a second) and the young condor would be reared under laboratory conditions. The goal was to establish a captive population that later could be used to restock empty habitat.

The program was challenged by other conservationists for scientific, political, esthetic, and ethical reasons. Would the interference with the birds accelerate their decline? How much would the additional knowledge of condor biology really help in preserving them? Was enough known about captive breeding of condors to assure the success of attempts to rear them in the laboratory (the species has never been bred in captivity)? If there were no condors left in the wild to show the released birds where to forage and nest, would the releases survive? Political activists wondered if a successful captive breeding program would remove the constraints on development of the condor's habitat The presence of the giant birds protected an important habitat containing many other valuable but less spectacular species. And if the habitat disappeared, then there would be no place to release captive-bred birds in the future.

Other conservationists claimed that it was the free-flying condor that should be preserved, not a dreary zoo-bred captive. Naturalist Carl Koford, perhaps the leading expert on the condor, claimed that "Handling, marking and caging greatly diminish the recreational value of wild condors." Nature writer Kenneth Brower expressed a related viewpoint poetically: "Perhaps feeding on ground squirrels, for a bird that once fed on mastodons, is too steep a fall from glory. If it is time for the condor to follow Teratornis, it should go unburdened by radio transmitters." Opponents of the hands-on approach preferred a naturalistic recovery plan designed by Koford that involved improving the condors' environment-reducing pesticide use, supplementing food supplies, improving protection from hunters, and reducing competition from Turkey Vultures and other abundant scavengers.

We will never know whether that approach would have worked, but it clearly would have been a gigantic gamble. Even with an endangered species listing, a wilderness refuge, and the involvement of more biologists than there were condors, the birds were still dying out. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Fish and Game Commission chose the interventionist approach, with early results that were mixed. The population in captivity increased, while that in the wild dwindled away. The last wild condor, a seven-year-old male with the code name AC-9, was captured in April, 1987. There are still plans to release condors back into nature once their numbers have been increased, and by late 1986 $9 million had been appropriated for acquisition of a 13,000-acre tract of land containing critical condor habitat. Unfortunately, in that same year analysis of a smashed wild condor egg showed high levels of breakdown products of DDT. In addition, in the vicinity of condor habitat, hunters still leave behind bullet-riddled carcasses that are a source of lead-poisoning. Urban areas are still expanding, and oil and wind energy development is still planned. Even if the captive breeding program is an outstanding success, the prospects for reestablishing a thriving wild population in southern California seem bleak. It has been suggested that the Grand Canyon might be a more suitable release area. The environment in that national park can be closely controlled, and the condors could be readily viewed by millions of people. It is an idea worth considering if enough birds become available for release, even though a Grand Canyon population would probably need supplemental feeding of large animal carcasses on a regular basis.

Only time will tell, but the condor case illuminates the importance of prominent endangered organisms in helping with the most crucial of all conservation tasks -- the protection of large tracts of relatively undisturbed habitat. It also shows how difficult decision-making becomes when it involves attempts to save organisms on the brink of extinction. In this case the controversy seriously split the conservation community, with people dedicated to the condors' welfare taking diametrically opposed views. But perhaps the most important point to be made about the California Condor is one of Ken Brower's: "When the vultures watching your civilization begin dropping dead ... it is time to pause and wonder." We would add "and to act."

SEE: DDT and Birds; Conservation of Raptors.

Copyright ® 1988 by Paul R. Ehrlich, David S. Dobkin, and Darryl Wheye.