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1st California Condors Return to Reclaim Wild

TIMES ENVIRONMENTAL WRITER

In a momentous step toward the revival of an endangered species, two zoo-bred California condors were airlifted Thursday into the rugged wilderness of Ventura County to reclaim their prehistoric heritage.

At 8:46 a.m., the first of two helicopters carrying the California condors lifted off from the parking lot at the Los Angeles Zoo, carrying Xewe (pronounced Ga-Wee), a 5-month-old female hatched at the zoo. Forty-nine minutes later, it touched down on a remote sandstone cliff in the Sespe Condor Sanctuary, where the condors will take up residence in a specially constructed cave.

At noon, a second flight carrying Chocuyens (Cho Koo Yenz), a 5-month-old male hatched at the San Diego Wild Animal Park, reached the site. Both California condors were accompanied by two Andean condors.

Biologists hope that within four months, Xewe and Chocuyens will be airborne on their own.

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The flights are a triumph for the arduous and controversial $15-million captive-breeding program, launched nearly a decade ago to bring the imposing vulture with its intense red eyes and nine-foot wing span back from the brink of extinction.

The condors returned to the wild Thursday are the vanguard of what scientists hope in eight to 10 years will become two separate condor populations of 100 birds each, one based in the Sespe wilderness, 75 miles northeast of Los Angeles, and the other possibly at the Grand Canyon.

“It’s a tremendous milestone both in a symbolic sense and an actual functional sense,” condor recovery team leader Lloyd Kiff said.

The last wild condor was captured on Easter Sunday, 1987. It marked the first time since continental ice sheets were receding in the Pleistocene era up to 2 million years ago that no condors flew in North America’s skies.

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The condors had to be coaxed into their new home. “They’re all bickering a little bit, some hissing and snapping,” said Michael Wallace, curator of birds at the Los Angeles Zoo. “By tomorrow they’ll settle down.”

For the next several months, Chocuyens and Xewe--each weighing 15 pounds and already with wingspans of nearly eight feet--will, along with the two young Andean condors, be confined to a kind of ornithological halfway house, an artificial cave set back from the edge of a cliff in Arundell Canyon.

There, in an area about 15 by 30 feet, they will have limited freedom to get accustomed to their surroundings, including the noises of prowling bears and mountain lions, and the sight of golden eagles, ravens and Andean condors in flight. A solar-powered electric fence will keep predators out.

A net over an open area outside the cave will allow them to explore but prevent them from flying away prematurely, or falling off the 150-foot cliff.

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Seven wildlife biologists will live nearby to keep an around-the-clock watch on the birds. The buzzards will be fed ground rat meat and, later, calf carcasses donated by dairy farmers.

The cliff is a historic nesting site for the condors. Winds sweep along the canyon and roll up the face of the cliff, providing a perfect air cushion for the buzzards to try their wings and, eventually, to soar into the skies.

If all goes well, the last and most dramatic step--free flight--will take place in January. “That’s the big payoff,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife service biologist David Clendenen said.

It was the second time an entire species had been removed from the wild, bred in captivity and returned to nature. Three weeks ago, 50 black-footed ferrets were reintroduced to the Wyoming prairie.

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There was a certain symmetry in Thursday’s undertaking. Xewe, the first condor returned to the wild, is the daughter of AC-9, the last condor removed from the wild.

Before 1987, condors were shot, poisoned by lead gunshot in carcasses they fed upon, collided with high tension wires and had their habitat shrink. By 1987, condors, which once numbered in the thousands throughout North America, had diminished to 27.

Over the protests of some scientists and the National Audubon Society, the remaining condors were captured and the breeding program was launched at the two zoos. Today there are 52 California condors.

Scientists said Thursday that they fully expect some condors to die. “That’s a fact of the program,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist David Ledig said.

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But he said the program’s success will hinge on numbers, not on individual birds. Ten to 15 zoo-bred California condors will be released each year. Scientists said 13 Andean condors have been flying in the wild for the last three years as surrogates for the California condor. None have been shot.

Scientists clearly saw larger implications in the condor program. William D. Toone, curator of birds at the San Diego Wild Animal Park, said that Congress is scheduled to vote on renewing the Endangered Species Act in 1993. “This is incredibly important. We need successes like this,” Toone said.

But on Thursday, wildlife biologists were enjoying the day. “We’re actually fairly ecstatic,” Wallace exulted.

Toone, who has spoken passionately of his hopes for the condor’s eventual return to the wild, stood in the parking lot to watch the ascending helicopter, and wept.

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