LONDON, U K (telegraph.co.uk) - The line between death and survival can be so thin as to be all but invisible. Just ask the California condor. Here is an animal of such magnificence that its name almost does it a disservice – a feathered vision which once soared across a whole continent, not just one slice of its west coast; the bird with the longest wingspan in North America; a titan of the skies so intrinsic to the natural history of the region that it haunts Native American legend as the “thunderbird”. And yet, by the mid-Eighties, its numbers had tumbled to such an extent that it was all but extinct. That it still lives is a tribute to persistence and ingenuity.
The fight-back started 30 years ago this week. There is a difference of opinion as to whether 22 or 27 California condors remained in the wild – but the Doomsday Clock had almost ticked around to midnight for a creature which, fossil and bone sites suggest, had flown over Florida, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada at the time of humanity’s arrival in what is now the planet’s fourth biggest country. Habitat destruction, poaching and lead poisoning all took their toll on the condor population as the 20th century progressed, and by the crisis point of April 1987 emergency action was needed. Under the California Condor Recovery Program, the remaining birds were captured. It would fall upon two California tourist attractions – San Diego Zoo Safari Park and Los Angeles Zoo – to coordinate a captivity breeding timetable which, it was hoped, would boost numbers.
Whatever your thoughts on mankind playing god with the future of a species via artificial intervention, this desperate move proved a qualified success. The California condor is still listed as “critically endangered”, and loss of habitat remains a considerable problem (the bird thrives in tranches of rocky shrubland, fir forest and oak woodland – all areas that are threatened by human incursion). But as of December 2015, the head-count has crept up to a more encouraging 435 (if captive and wild statistics are combined). It was reintroduced into the wider world as early as 1991 (the beginning of a process which is slow by design because Californian condors are monogamous, and will mate for life) – and over the subsequent 26 years it has been returned to Arizona and Utah as well as California (along with Mexico’s Baja California peninsula). Small steps for larger gains.
Surely, though, the question might be asked, condors cannot really be deemed close to the abyss – not least because they are found all over the most elevated and craggy portions of South America? This is true – but the Andean condor is not the same as its American cousin. It has different markings, slightly longer wings, and will kill small animals to eat – where the California condor forages for carrion. Not that this makes this American icon any less impressive on the eye than the predators which hover on Peruvian thermals. It wears a plumage of uniform black (but for triangular white patches under its wings, a bald head and a golden bill), and its wingspan can stretch to around 10ft (3m). Catch a glimpse of it in the firmament and you understand why the Navajo hold it in such esteem.
So where can you make such sightings? The easy answer is – back at the breeding base, at San Diego Zoo Safari Park (sdzsafaripark.org), where birds live in their own “condor-minium”, and can also be watched via webcam (Los Angeles Zoo – lazoo.org – has a small population of Andean condors).
But if you want to see them gliding freely, you must crane your neck. They can be spotted at Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge (fws.gov/refuge/bitter_creek) – a 14,097-acre protected enclave in Kern County, in southern California, which was purchased specifically as a condor habitat in 1985 (the last wild female California condor was captured here in 1986). They are also a swirling, graceful compliment to both Grand Canyon National Park (nps.gov/grca) in Arizona and Zion National Park (the framework for a smaller (15-mile-long) but barely less spectacular canyon) in the south-west corner of Utah (nps.gov/zion). The creature has a long way to fly before it can become an American constant once more – and it is unlikely that it will ever regain ubiquitousness. But the US landscape is undeniably richer for its presence, and this week’s birthday of sorts is a reminder as to why it should be cherished.
-Four other animals which are battling back-
The most beautiful of the big cats once roamed from the cold shores of the Black Sea to the tropical setting of Indonesia – and still had a population of 100,000 at the beginning of the 20th century. At best, the global head-count is now 3,948, with some 2000 of these striped beasts skulking on the Indian subcontinent. However, April 2016 saw the World Wildlife Fund (WWF; worldwildlife.org) report a first rise in tiger numbers in a century.
Where to see it: Ranthambore National Park, Rajasthan (ranthamborenationalpark.com)
• Indian rhinoceros
Once as dominant as the tiger in its ecosystem, stomping its footprints across northern India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the mighty Indian rhinoceros had been reduced to a gene-pool of just 1870 bodies by the mid-Nineties. The loss of its habitat – alluvial grassland and riverine forest – was to blame. So were bullets. However, the seeds of its salvation had been planted a decade earlier – hunting of the animal had been banned in India in 1984. As of 2015, the population has “swelled” to a slightly more healthy 3500.
Where to see it: Dudhwa National Park, Uttar Pradesh (dudhwanationalpark.in)
• West Indian manatee
A lumbering yet loveable marine mammal which keeps its own counsel in the coastal waters of Florida and the Caribbean, the “sea cow” population had slipped below 700 in number in 1967. Boat propellers and careless sailors were partially at fault. Conservation efforts have since plumped the figure to about 13,000 – some 6,300 of them in Florida. In January 2016, the animal was reclassified from “endangered” to “vulnerable”. It’s a start.
Where to see it: Blue Spring State Park, Florida (floridastateparks.org/park/Blue-Spring)
• Trumpeter swan
One can only assume that the heaviest bird in North America – it can tip the scales at up to 14kg – is distinctly tasty. By 1933, its overuse as a food source had ensured that what was once an American staple was scarcely present in the main 48 US states and Canada – only 70 were documented. Happily, the discovery of an unknown flight of Trumpeter swans in Alaska during the Fifties provided an opportunity for resurrection. Careful transfer and breeding strategies have boosted the continental population to some 50,000.
Where to see it: Saskatoon Island Provincial Park, Alberta (albertaparks.ca/saskatoon-island).
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Updated 68 days ago Article ID# 4132507