Timidly taking its first steps in the wild, the young condor perches on a rocky plateau as a hot breeze swirls upward from the barren Patagonian...

Share story

SIERRA PAILEMAN, Argentina — Timidly taking its first steps in the wild, the young condor perches on a rocky plateau as a hot breeze swirls upward from the barren Patagonian landscape.

Raised in captivity, the 1-year-old gathers the courage to attempt its first flight, unfurling its 10-foot wings and flapping skyward — before landing awkwardly on rocks a short distance away.

Condors, the world’s largest flying birds, once soared by the thousands across South America’s ridges until nearly dying out.

Scientists here are trying to return them to the wild after near extinction.

On Wednesday, two condors, one raised in captivity, the other a rescued bird, were released in Sierra Paileman, about 680 miles south of Buenos Aires, bringing to seven the number of condors freed from this spot. Across South America, 40 condors have been released to the wild since 1991.

Two others are awaiting release later in 2005 from the same fenced-in enclosure.

“Letting them go is a symbol of the condors who once flew here,” said Luis Jacome, director of the Andean Condor Conservation Project. “It is important to Argentina both culturally and ecologically.”

Watching from below the ridge, an Indian spiritual guide, Tayta Ullpu, played a wooden flute in an ancient ritual said to coax the birds to fly.

As if on cue, the hollow sound of the flute seemed to summon the first bird to flap its wings. About 40 minutes later, the second condor emerged and took a shaky test flight, landing near its companion.

The Andean Condor Conservation Project, begun in 1991, has opened a window for scientists into the habits of the birds.

In 1997, the first condors to wear solar-powered satellite transmitters on their wings were released. The birds freed Wednesday also were tagged.

Transmitters and a specialized computer program have helped make the condors’ previously mysterious flight patterns and the locations of roosts clearer, allowing experts to refine their conservation strategy.

The vast range of condors reduces the protective areas of national parks to isolated islands of safety.

“Condors don’t worry about passports or country borders,” Jacome pointed out.

A young female condor gets ready to fly after being released in Sierra Paileman in Argentina’s Patagonia region.

Chile and Argentina have the largest remaining condor populations, sharing about 4,000 birds between the two countries, according to Fundacion Bioandina, a conservation group.

The condor was declared extinct in Venezuela in 1965, and fewer than 100 survive in the wild in Ecuador and Colombia, according to the group. The populations in Peru and Bolivia also have declined.

At the conservation project, some birds are rescued, treated and released. Birds incubated in captivity are raised in the presence of latex puppets — made to look like adult condors — to prevent the chicks from imprinting on humans.

There have been disappointments in the program, too: one released condor flew into a high-voltage power line in Venezuela, one was poisoned and another was shot by hunters in Chile.

Suzelle Tempero reported from Buenos Aires on this report.