José Luis Amable is standing on a small-town sidewalk high in Peru’s Andes Mountains when his cellphone rings. “How many do you want?” he asks the caller, his Spanish inflected with his native Quechua lilt. “One or two?” To secure the illicit goods, the trim, boy-faced 26-year-old will change out of his pointy leather shoes, slacks, and leather jacket, slip into wool pants and a wool poncho, grab a rope, and hike to his secret source high in the mountains. After 10 years on the job, Amable knows what works. To catch an Andean Condor, he says, you can’t beat a dead horse.
Amable sits silently in a pit beneath the carcass of a calf or horse from before dawn until dusk for days on end, wishing the whole time that he was playing the keyboard with his band, The New Sensation. It’s a miserable stint, but at least the breeze carries away the reek of decay. The vulture he’s after has an almost supernatural sense of smell, Amable says, so he doesn’t eat anything or even drink water in his morbid hidey-hole—he’s convinced the slightest whiff of his urine could tip off his quarry. Eventually, he hears a thwump as a condor lands. Since its feet are unable to grasp, it can’t swoop in and take its meal to go. So as the huge bird feasts, Amable reaches up from the hole, grabs the scavenger’s feet, and ties one with a long rope secured around his waist.
When he first started catching condors, Amable was terrified of the flesh-ripping beak and talons. These days he’s calm and confident when handling the birds, and insists that neither he nor his target suffer injury. Once he scores a condor, he hands it off to his customers, who take it to a safe house in their village. They pay him handsomely in return, some $400 per bird. Capturing a condor is illegal, but the money makes it worth the risk. “I do it for the work. They come begging me for condors,” says Amable, adding that he catches 15 to 20 a year. “It is our custom.”
According to Andean mythology, the condor ruled the upper world, and today indigenous communities view the bird as a symbol of power and health. The condors Amable snags are the centerpiece of the Yawar Fiestas, or Festivals of Blood, that take place in dozens of Peruvian villages in July. On the appointed date, days or weeks after its capture, the condor is presented to the town by its guards. The villagers pray before this icon, bless it, offer it Andean moonshine, and, accompanied by music and dancing, parade it into the arena. There a bull with cotton string sewn into its sides awaits. The condor’s legs are tied with the string, so it straddles the bull. Then it’s showtime.
The door flies open and this awkward, yet oddly beautiful, pair explodes into the arena, a symbol of a violent past. The condor represents the Quechua-speaking Indians, who revere it like a god; the bull stands in for the Spaniards, who ruthlessly conquered and ruled them. A bullfighter with a cape keeps the action moving.
A few days after the condor rides the bull, the villagers hold a ceremony and, usually, release the bird.
At a recent Yawar Fiesta in Yanaca, about 500 miles southeast of Lima, a raucous crowd packed the terraced hillside above the arena, cheering as the bull bucked, trying to free itself of the goliath slashing at his back with its beak. The condor extended its 10-foot wingspan as it pecked ferociously, trying to maintain its balance as the bloody battle raged. Dust rose like glitter in the sun-drenched mountain air.
“This is the tradition of our ancestors,” hollered the announcer to the crowd. “This is a tribute to our customs. No one will take this away from us. This is Yawar Fiesta!”
The announcer might have been speaking directly to a spectator standing head and shoulders above the crowd, squinting his green eyes against the sunlight: British-born biologist Rob Williams, 45, who directs the Frankfurt Zoological Society’s Peru program. That day, as is his custom at these events, he spoke to few people. Instead he shot pictures of the condors while his Peruvian staff, an anthropologist and two biologists—one with deep roots in the town—mingled with the crowd.
Williams’s quiet presence belies his talkative nature and the fact that he’s the strongest voice in Peru for condor conservation. In the past few years, in his free time and mostly on his own dime, he has crisscrossed the remote, granite-peaked Andes to attend Yawar Fiestas, including one where he tried in vain to save a condor wounded when the bull it was tied to slammed against the arena wall. He’s spent hours talking to villagers about condor sightings, scoured the scant survey reports, and designed small studies near Cuzco to get a better grasp on population size. Williams has uncovered a blackmarket trade in condor feathers directed at foreign tourists enticed by the feathers’ purported mystical powers. He’s knocked on the doors of government officials, becoming a driving, if controversial, force behind putting the vulture on the national agenda. He’s endured vicious criticism and even an apparent attempt on his life, all to protect the species. “On top of all the problems the condor faces, like hunting and poisoning, we have the capture of condors for Yawar Fiesta, yet another threat the condor just can’t take.”
After earning his doctorate from Britain’s University of East Anglia, Williams moved to Ecuador in 1999 to work for he Wildlife Conservation Society and then BirdLife International. There he oversaw a national condor census that estimated the population at 65 to 75 individuals; it’s since dropped to 50. When he moved to Peru in 2003, he thought he’d finally start to see abundant condors. He didn’t. “Pretty soon there won’t be any Yawar Fiestas because there won’t be any more condors,” he says. “If we don’t do something, we are all going to lose the condor.”
Andean condors, ancient birds that have survived from the time of saber-toothed tigers and giant sloths, evolved to soar. They ride thermals for hours, wings locked in place, primary feathers tilted upward, covering up to 150 miles in a single day in search of carrion. With its 10-foot wing-span and 33-pound frame, the Andean Condor makes its cousin the California Condor seem like a lightweight. Unlike other American vultures, the difference between the sexes is obvious: Females lack the large, fleshy lump, or “carnuncle,” that adorns males’ heads. The birds reach sexual maturity at age six or seven, reproduce every two years at most, and have a single chick—making them a contender for the bird with the slowest reproductive rate. It also makes them extremely sensitive to threats, says Sergio Lambertucci, a condor specialist at Argentina’s National Council for Scientific and Technological Research. “It can go from healthy to extinction very quickly.”
Humans have pushed these carrion feeders to dangerously low levels. Condors are hunted and poisoned throughout their range, victims of the misconception that they prey on living herd animals. Since 1977 killing or capturing condors has been illegal in Peru, but anecdotal evidence and a few site-specific counts in South America indicate their numbers are declining.
That’s why Williams is urging the region’s condor specialists to go out on a limb. If experts in each of the countries where condors remain offer up a population estimate, he’s sure the total will be closer to 6,000 than the 10,000 cited by BirdLife International. That lower number would open the door for lobbying BirdLife to move the condor from its current “near threatened” status to “vulnerable” or even “endangered”—designations that afford far more protections and probably more conservation funds. Census numbers already exist for four nations: In addition to the 50 in Ecuador, Williams ballparks the Peruvian population at 300 to 800. San Diego Zoo condor specialist Michael Mace, who has reintroduced the birds in Colombia and Venezuela, believes there are likely 400 individuals between the two countries.
Yet scientists in Chile and Argentina, where condor populations are thought to be much stronger, haven’t been willing to write down a figure, and some Peruvian biologists question Williams’s calculations. Williams understands their reluctance to make estimates that aren’t based on rigorous science. “But I’m willing to stick my neck out and be criticized for it,” he says.
Such un-scientist-like behavior has won Williams vocal critics. Peruvian ornithologist Thomas Valqui says he has yet to see a single scientific data point that demonstrates the condor is declining in Peru. Some even doubt Williams’s motives. “Maybe he thinks his access to funds will be easier if he creates a state of emergency over the condor,” says Peruvian biologist Fernando Angulo, who has long clashed with Williams on various topics. Yes, condors are in trouble, he says, but the situation isn’t as dire as Williams paints it.
Still, says José Alvarez, the Peru Ministry of Environment’s biological diversity director, determining an exact number is largely beside the point. “Whether or not the numbers are exaggerated, it is clear we have a problem,” he says. “We can’t just wait and do nothing only to find ourselves in a situation like the California Condor faced, where we must spend millions upon millions on reintroduction.” He’s one of Williams’s allies, pointing out that “it isn’t part of his job; he has done it on his own time and with his own resources. He was the first one to sound the alarm.”
In 2009 Williams drove to a village known for its Yawar Fiestas to meet with local officials and discuss, among other things, condor conservation. He parked his marked Frankfurt Zoological Society truck in front of the police station and went into the government office next door. Driving away afterward, he had trouble controlling his vehicle. “I drove sideways off the road,” he recalls. “I got out and checked the truck. The wheel nuts on three tires had been deliberately loosened.” He never discovered the culprit.
There are plenty of people who don’t appreciate Williams’s condor work. But when they get in his face to express their displeasure, he’s diplomatic, his coworkers say, focusing on their shared interest in the birds. He wasn’t always so empathetic.
Karol Mejia, a young biologist with family in Yanaca, says that when she began working with Williams in 2011, he was outraged that the festivals took place. Over time, after many conversations with villagers and local authorities, his perspective changed. “He saw the affection the villagers have for the condor and that they don’t understand the damage they’re doing,” she says. “He began to see the communities as possible allies for condor conservation.” In recent years Williams has been pivotal in inviting Yawar communities to participate in national condor conservation talks. He’s also begun considering creative solutions that would allow the tradition to continue while reducing pressure on wild birds, such as providing one captive condor for all fiestas.
The Yawar Fiesta dates back to the mid-1800s. By the 1940s some 90 communities were taking part, but the festival all but disappeared in the 1980s, when political violence ravaged Peru. As peace and increased prosperity have come to the Andes in recent years, at least 51 towns have held a festival. No one knows how many condors are affected by the practice. Some towns use multiple birds. Others share one. Despite the care villagers take, Williams knows of at least four condors that died in the past decade in pre-fiesta captivity or from bullfight injuries. Even when the condors are released in apparent health, it’s a mystery how they, and their offspring, fare; anecdotal evidence indicates that Peruvian condor nesting could be at the height of Yawar season.
Some community leaders agree there’s a problem. Unfortunately their solution is for other towns to stop holding the festival. After all, Yawar has become a moneymaker, morphing from a private tradition to a “cultural industry,” as sociologist Fanni Muñoz puts it. “People from other parts of the country and other countries come for the fiesta,” says Walter Bocangel, mayor of Coyllurqui, which claims to be Yawar’s birthplace. “If there is no condor, it’s not a good fiesta, and the people blame their leaders.” Bocangel isn’t certain how much the festival brings in, but it’s the only day tourists visit, he says. He knows holding condors captive is illegal, but he also knows the authorities haven’t posed much of a threat. “Because of the distance, government officials don’t come,” he says. “That’s the advantage we have.”
Those days may soon be gone. The Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of the Environment, which oversee endangered species, are drafting a national condor conservation plan, with input from Williams, villagers, and other stakeholders. Officials hope to have it ready this year; in the meantime, they’re cracking down on the feather trade and the fiestas themselves. In late July, Zosimo Solano, of the Agriculture Ministry, tried to confiscate a condor in Chalhuanca, near Yanaca. He says he and his undermanned police detail were no match for the drunken, angry crowd. They had better luck the next time, in a different village. Solano, after receiving a tip, raced to speak with community leaders before the festival began. As the townspeople stood on a windswept mountainside, the bird tethered to a rock, he filmed them saying that they were unaware capturing condors was illegal and that they’d never do it again. They untied the condor. She extended her massive wings, leapt into the air, and glided out of view. Their festival continued without its star attraction.
On an early October morning, tourists crowded onto a viewing platform at the rim of Colca, the world’s deepest canyon. Williams, there to tally condors, was the first to spot a slight shadow moving across the opposite wall. “That’s definitely a young female,” he said, noting her comb-free head. Excitement rippled through the crowd as the condor neared. When she circled directly overhead, hundreds of skyward-pointing cameras created a chorus of rapid-fire clicks that mixed with multilingual exclamations of awe.
After she disappeared over a ridge, there was a burst of activity around the craft vendors. “When the condors come out, people get excited and start buying,” said Redy Chicana, who sells jewelry. “The more condors, the better the sales.”
The economy of this entire valley, and much of the tourism streaming through Peru’s second-largest city, Arequipa, a few hours away, depends on the condor. The vast majority of tourists come for the birds, surveys show, and tour guides are keenly aware of their moneymakers. “In the 1990s I’d bring tourists here, and we could see 50 to 70 condors flying at the same time,” says tour guide Omar Cano. “Now, if you are very lucky, you could maybe see 25 to 40.”
Colca villages don’t hold Yawar Fiestas, but the canyon isn’t all that far,as the condor flies, from areas where they’re common. That’s driven some Colca authorities to try, unsuccessfully, to get Yawar Fiestas outlawed altogether. For his part, Williams would like to see Yawar communities adopt Colca’s approach to condor tourism: offering up-close views of the birds in their natural environment.
Tourists themselves may unwittingly contribute to the bird’s demise. A vendor at Colca sold two condor feathers to Colombian tourist Diani Safdeye and a friend of hers, Kelly Searcy, from Miami. “We use the feather to pray. It represents the spirit of the animal it came from,” said Searcy. “We weren’t looking for the feathers,” Safdeye added. “They found us.”
Safdeye gingerly removed the feather from her loose bun and passed it to Williams. He didn’t see any yellow blood staining the shaft. “It’s a secondary feather. It looks like a natural molt,” he said. “It must be a found feather, not taken from a hunted bird.”
“These people wouldn’t kill a condor,” Safdeye told him, shocked. “They live with them.”
“Actually, there’s a condor hunter who lives in the valley,” said Williams, who has investigated the feather trade and published his findings in the journal Vulture News. He knows of at least three hunters who kill condors for feathers. Tourists pay up to $60 for a single feather, or $200 for a dreamcatcher woven with them.
For a long time, Williams says, nothing was done to stop the sales. But recent raids on shops in Cuzco are heartening, he adds. Between the busts and the forthcoming conservation plan, Williams is finally seeing his work get traction. Far from slowing him down, the gains are spurring him to dig in and redouble his efforts.
Williams is on the hunt for funds to conduct simultaneous condor counts across the country and to start a tracking project. Combined, these endeavors would offer unprecedented knowledge about how many condors are out there, and their movements.
Williams has plenty of experience tagging birds and has outfitted three with transmitters. What he needs is someone to help him capture them. And he knows just the man for the job.
He and Amable, the condor catcher, chat often, swapping information gleaned from their very different experiences with the birds. Amable says he wants to quit the illicit trade, find other work, and dedicate more time to his music. But it’s been hard to turn down the money. Williams is sure he can pay him enough to lure him away from the Yawar Fiesta circuit.
Amable says he’d jump at the chance. “I want to know where the condor goes, where it sleeps, how long the eggs incubate, everything,” he says. “I’m interested in really getting to the bottom of it.”
And so this improbable pair may soon be working not at cross-purposes but together, to protect the bird that so captivates them both.
Scientific Name: Vultur gryphus
Range: Formerly the length of South America, from Colombia and western Venezuela south to Tierra del Fuego, in the Andes, as well as in adjacent lowland and coastal areas. North of central Peru, only small and scattered populations persist.
Habitat: All kinds of open country. Mostly high above tree line north of Peru, but also found in desert, grassland, and open coastlines in more southerly regions.
Status: Total population is poorly known. Recent estimates range from about 6,000 to 10,000. Reintro- duction attempts in Venezuela and Colombia have met with mixed success.
Threats/Outlook: Because wild condors reproduce very slowly, they are slow to recover from population losses, which can come from many sources. Some birds are inadvertently killed in traditional rituals. In farm country, condors are sometimes shot because of a mistaken belief that they prey on young animals, and some die from eating poison-laced carcasses put out for predators. In wilder regions, condors develop lead poisoning from ingesting lead shot from hunters’ kills. Decreased food supplies from changes in ranching practices may be an issue in certain areas. Without active conservation measures, the species could disappear from large parts of its range, and populations could continue to decline even in its current strongholds.—Kenn Kaufman