Known as the largest flying bird on the planet, the Andean condor is a bird of great importance to the Andean territories, symbolizing magnificence, strength, and freedom.
The Andean Condor (Vultur Gryphus) belongs to the new world Vultures and Cathartidae family whose members are characterized by feeding on carrion and rarely on vegetables or small animals. It lives in the highest Andean mountains, distributed along the Andes from Venezuela to the Tierra del Fuego. The Colca Canyon is one of the sites, recognized worldwide, as the condor’s habitat where you can observe the flight of this magnificent bird.
It can fly over 7000 m high and glide for hours without moving its wings. The Andean condor can easily live up to 85 years, therefore it is called the “eternal bird" and is characterized by being sedentary and monogamous.
With a menacing and challenging appearance, this bird has a bluish-black plumage and a white back. It can measure up to 1.30 m tall, 3.30 m wide and its maximum weight is 12 kg.
It has a small, bare head that is usually a reddish in color and a hook-shaped beak. Their wings are long and wide and their legs are short and have slightly curved claws. Despite their dangerous appearance, the condor isn’t a bird of prey, as their legs lack the strength to lift an animal and their claws and nails are just like those of a hen.
The Condor has no larynx and therefore doesn’t make sounds or sing as do other species of birds. The female has shiny, red eyes and lacks the fleshy crest unlike male condors.
The magnificent Andean Condor occupied a place of great significance to ancient Andean societies. Its imposing presence, longevity and ability to glide for hours were a source of inspiration in primary andean arts such as representations of cave painting, ceramics, sculpture and mural painting, placing this bird as an icon within the religious and spiritual beliefs of Andean civilization.
The Incas believed that due to its longevity, the condor was immortal. According to the myth, when the animal is without strength and begins to feel it’s old age, he believes that his life has no meaning so he chooses to commit suicide. The condor settles at the highest peaks of the mountains, catches flight and reaches a height high enough for it to then spiral down at high speed and crash against the mountains, putting an end to his own life. It is said that his death is symbolic, as the condor is reborn with suicide.
Nowadays, the condor is the national bird of Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia and Chile appearing as a patriotic symbol in their coat of arms.
Andean Condor populations have fallen greatly throughout South America resulting in the critical condition of this species in Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. This bird has been placed on the list of endangered species since 1973 by the U.S. Fish and Wildflife Service, becoming a challenge for conservation and a struggle against humanity for survival.
This unfortunate situation is caused mainly by hunting, loss of habitat, pollution, the severe reduction of their food source and the low rate of reproduction of this species in which a pair of condor lays an egg every two or three years .
Humans are the main predator of the condor. The motives that drive them to hunt this bird are, fear of losing farm animals and cultural activities or festivals such as Yawar Fiesta, where members of a community catch a live condor to fight a bull and then get the bird drunk as a celebration, usually involving the death of the animal. The condors are hunted because of the belief that certain body parts have magical or therapeutic powers, and their feathers are used for different folk dances and activities in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador.
In addition to human predators, the condors have to face birds of prey of various types and sizes, which do have claws and feed on them when these condors are searching for food, and enter the territory of the birds of prey.
SURVIVAL OF THE CONDOR
In Latin America, not many countries are concerned about the preservation of the Andean Condor, apart from Argentina and Chile. Peru is among the countries that haven’t done much in favor of this species; however there are signs of initiatives and projects for the conservation of the condor in this country.
In the Chaparrí Ecological Reserve, located in the province of Chiclayo, proyects are undertaken for the conservation and reintroduction of several endangered species including a national plan of action for the conservation of the Andean condor. 30 years ago, the Andean condor was a common species in Chaparrí and with the low presence of animals that they fed on; these also eventually disappeared, leaving only a small number of them in the reserve.
Heinz Plenge, coordinator of the National Action Plan for the Conservation of the Andean condor, is convinced that in a few years the critical situation that the Andean condor is facing in Peru will be reversed. This project was born when he attended a conference of birds of prey in Ecuador where he was appointed coordinator.
The project started with forty condors living in captivity, which would be prepared to be released in their habitat, thereby helping to repopulate their species. There will be a mapping of the condor’s population in the country, in order to release more of these birds where necessary. This project is supported by international organizations such as the Frankfurt Zoological Society of Germany, “Fundación Cayetano Heredia”, San Diego Zoo, Peregrine Group, South Lakes in the United States, Wild Animal Park in Germany, and the Zoo of Doué La Fontaine in France, all pf which are fully concerned for and involved with the conservation of this scavenger bird.
Another project has been taking place for the Protection of Andean Condor which started through the cooperation between the Peruvian engineer Miguel Ayala Calderon and the Italian ornithologist and sportsman Angelo D'Arrigo. In 2005, D'Arrigo obtained two condor eggs that were held by an Austrian university and decided to try to be the mother of the chicks which had the names of Maya and Inca. He incubated them in a nest built specially for them in their experimental farm, covering it with a black and white glider, so that the chicks were used to its presence and form. As the chicks grew, D'Arrigo gave them flying lessons around the area so that in the future they could be released into their natural habitat, the Peruvian Andes.
D'Arrigo, known as the "condor man", died in March 2006 due to an accident during an air display in Sicily. His death has not stopped the completion of the project in which Laura Mancuso, widow of D'Arrigo in coordination with a technical team from the University of San Antonio Abad and the National Geographic, they ensured that Inca and Maya would get to Cuzco and set free, five months after the disappearance of the father of the project. Today, Inca and Maya are in good health and are an essential part of the project for the protection and conservation of this endangered species.
D'Arrigo, created in Cusco the first resettlement program of condors in Peru, therefore, it is essential to follow his example of determination and dedication to the care of this species to save this magnificent bird, because the conservation of the condor leads to conservation of all the Andes, and therefore the protection of biodiversity in the Colca Canyon.
In the middle of the desolated Andean “puna” grasslands, some curious green forms have caught the attention of many travellers, they are known as “yareta”, an almost miraculous plant that has managed to colonize an environment where other plants die.
This plant belongs to the umbellifer family, the yareta (Azorella yareta) is a species so adapted to life in stunning conditions that any other plant would perish.
Its habitat is the cold “punas” of the high Andes of southern Peru usually above 3800 meters, where the wind blows unceasingly and the cold cracks even granite. “Yareta” grows on rocks and follows the contours from where it began to grow, which is the reason why it has a singular and round form. This is a response to its need to resist the powerful high altitude wind, which would tear up the roots of any plant.
Living so close to the sky involves exposure to intense solar radiation; therefore, the yareta has covered its tiny leaves with a substance similar to wax, which prevents moisture loss through evaporation. Apart from its colourful appearance, it has developed a truly special way to survive: it must grow at an incredibly slow pace, almost geological, of a millimetre per year.
Despite what might seem to be the inaccessibility of the areas where “yareta” grows, this has not prevented it from being a victim of the devastation caused by man. It’s used as fuel in the mountains was so intense, that large areas of “yareta” are missing. During the nineteenth century, this plant was also used for industrial fuel, such as the Arica-La Paz railway that employed yareta as its basic component.
Fortunately today “yareta” is protected in natural reserves such as “Salinas” and “Aguada Blanca”, even though its indiscriminate use in cities such as Arequipa and Puno impede its absolute recovery.
Biodiversity refers to the variety of animals, plants and everything else that surrounds them, which is an undeniable aspect of the Colca Canyon, which currently hosts a large quantity of species of flora and fauna.
The Colca Canyon is a synonym for extensive biodiversity, observations and studies in the canyon show the existence of an assorted flora and fauna, which given the particularities of the Andes, are fully adapted to extreme conditions of coldness and altitude.
The existing flora in the Colca Canyon includes about 300 species, which are sometimes used as medicine, fuel, in dyeing and as a nutritious food for and wild and farm animals. The plant species consists of three groups: trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants, these exist in different plant communities according to the altitude at which they are found.
In the area of the Colca Canyon, floristic species are varied, such as the cactus that grows and develops more easily in low areas near the river Colca and are locally known as: “Chiri-Chiris”(Grindelia bergii), “Corotillas”(Tephrocactus corotilla) , and Tuna (nopal). Shrubs grow in abundance in the valley such as the “Cantuta”(Cantua buxifolia , Cantua candelilla); the “Chillko” (Vulpia megalura); the “Chinchircuma” (Mutisia comptonaeoifolia) and “Sullun Sullu”(Alchemilla pinnata).
In the upland areas located more than 3500 meters above sea level, the “ichu” (Stipa ichu, Stipa obtuse), dominates the landscape giving the appearance of a land covered by tall usually yellow colored grasses. The land over 4000 meters high is the habitat of rural meadows and Polylepis, a kind of trees and shrubs known in Quechua as “Queñuales”, wetlands and swampy areas are also found here.
In the higher plant community known as Yaretal located over 4500 meters above sea level, grows an extraordinary plant with a cushion form and which grows up to 1 m tall known as yareta (Azorella yarita, Azorella diapensoides). Yareta has managed to survive in a place of critical conditions and extreme cold and grows at a slow rate of one millimeter per year.
Wildlife is just as extensive and varied as flora, including 32 species of mammals, 5 carnivores, over 130 species of birds, rodents, amphibians and reptiles. The canyon and its surroundings are home to an important, substantial and diverse fauna, specially adapted to the environment of the Andes and its extreme aridity.
A species considered as representative of the Andes is the majestic Condor(Vultur gryphus), known as the king of birds, it is here in this deep canyon where this scavenger bird is flourishes given the ideal conditions it finds.
The giant hummingbird deserves special mention as it’s the largest in the world, 23 cm long including the thick 3.5 cm long peak. These special birds have developed a unique feeding strategy. They have long peaks and a tongue even longer, which are inserted into certain tubular flowers that can only feed them. The plant attracts them with its color and gives them its sweet nectar in exchange for this, the hummingbirds carry pollen to other flowers allowing the polenization of the flowers. They feed especially on the flowers of cacti and “Cantuta”.
Among the most important carnivores in the Colca valley you can find: the fearsome puma, the wild cat or "Osjollo" (Felis colocolo), the Andean fox (Pseudalopex culpaeus), recognized as the most significant predator of the Andes, the skunk or “añas”, and the weasel known as "Achocalla”.
The Puma is the largest animal in the canyon and therefore demands enormous quantities of food. It is solitary and is remarkable adaptative to to different environments. Their scarcity in the Colca is due to the little food they hunt here. They feed on animals including foxes and wild cats.
The “viscachas” (Lagidium peruanum) are very abundant in this region especially in rocky areas of the high Andes. Their appearance is quite similar to a rabbit, but with a long and hairy tail. It appears to be the main victim of carnivores such as foxes and birds of prey. They live by eating many plant species of their surroundings and have a habit of sunbathing in the morning.
Reptiles and amphibians are rather scarce in this part of the country, represented by three amphibians and five reptiles.
The Colca Canyon is the natural habitat for different species of flora and fauna, from the majestic Andean condor, the puma, white-tailed deer, foxes, vizcacha, wild cats and birds of all shapes and sizes, therefore the importance of conserving the ecosystems that keep alive the variety of animals and plants that this canyon has, is a primary goal in keeping this place a true natural wonder.