In the high Andes of South America, one of the world's great birds is making a comeback.
The condor is returning from the brink of extinction, thanks to a program in which condor chicks are raised in American zoos and then released in the wild. Success, though, depends on the cooperation of farmers and shepherds — and in one special case, a group of Colombian army soldiers assigned to a rocky cliff.
Getting to condor country requires going high, on narrow, boulder-strewn mountain passes in a sturdy, off-road vehicle. The mountains are so high and strikingly picturesque that they leave you breathless. Biologist Olga Nunez says it is hard to reach the high peaks that are home to the large birds.
Weighing as much as 35 pounds, with wings that can stretch up to 11 feet, the condor is simply magnificent. Using the roaring mountain winds and thermal currents to ascend to 15,000 feet, the birds search for the rotting remains of dead sheep, deer or rodents — and then strip meat off bone in minutes.
The condors' voracious appetite, coupled with their search for food across hundreds of square miles, led farmers to mistakenly believe they snatched sheep, and even small children.
"Indiscriminate hunting killed off the condors in this region," Nunez says.
American zoos, which had decades of experience with the birds, stepped in to painstakingly raise condor chicks.
"At about a year or a year and a half of age, when they are well on their way to development, that's when we start talking about exporting them to Colombia for release," says Michael Mace, the curator of birds at the San Diego Zoo.
The birds are then set free in the Andes Mountains of South America. There are now 30 condors in the stretch of mountains north of Bogota.
Nunez says a vital part of the program's success has been teaching farmers, shepherds and one small group of soldiers to care for the big birds.
A few miles from where the condors are released, 43 soldiers are deployed on a frigid base, 13,000 feet above sea level, at Pena Negra, or Black Cliff. Their job has been to guard vital radio communications equipment against anti-government guerrillas.
These days, however, with training from Nunez, Edison Quintian and other soldiers now watch for condors.
"Since we're here, we monitor the birds and let Nunez know if there's any change in behavior," Quintian says.
On a recent day, though the sky was bright blue, the condors didn't show up even as Cpl. Manuel Vargas scanned the horizon and explained that soldiers had laid out a cow's remains for the birds.
But Colombia now has perhaps 180 condors, more than twice as many as a decade ago, and the soldiers know the birds will be back.