TALAGANTE, Chile — The people of the Andean mountain range have long seen the condor as more than just a big bird. With a wingspan stretching up to 10 feet and a cruising altitude higher than 16,000 feet above sea level, this majestic creature was considered a supernatural being, a source of national pride and even an immortal divinity.
Today, however, the Andean condor is in danger of becoming nothing more than a myth.
Expanding human development in the Andes Mountains, which stretch down the length of South America, has upset the delicate balance of food that the condor depends on to survive, and the consequences have been drastic.
The condor has become virtually extinct in Venezuela and is highly endangered in Colombia and Ecuador, in the continent's north. The bird is considered endangered in Peru and Bolivia, farther down the Andes, and flourishes only in the southern end of the mountain range, in Chile and Argentina.
But even there, in two countries that have been described as the condor's last haven, the giant bird faces growing difficulties. In the winter months, for example, when food becomes scarce in the mountains of central Chile, the mythic birds become trash eaters at city dumps.
"It's a bigger problem each day, because each day more people are moving into the areas where condors are," said Jurgen Rottmann, the director of a condor rehabilitation center in the Chilean town of Talagante. "We're losing ground in this fight."
The biggest fear here is that the same combination of manmade forces that pushed the California condor to the brink of extinction in the Southwestern United States could finish off the Andean condor.
California and Andean condors are different species; the South American variety weighs more and features different markings on its neck and wings.
Their feeding patterns have complicated the survival of both types of condors: They're both carnivorous scavengers, which means that they eat dead or wounded animals.
In nature, Andean condors survive off the remains of deer, guanaco — a llama-like mammal — and other animals that predators such as pumas leave behind.
Such food supplies fell sharply throughout the 20th century in countries such as Chile when people settled farther out into wild lands and replaced the native fauna with cattle, sheep and other livestock.
The Andean condors adapted by eating wounded or dead livestock left out in the open, usually by accident. Some condors flew hundreds of miles from their mountain homes to feed on dead seals on the Pacific coast, often making the round trip in a single day.
But that domesticated food source began dwindling as more ranchers raised livestock in feed lots, which cut back on the number of wounded or dead animals left in the open. On top of that, many ranchers have hunted down condors, mistaking them for predators capable of carrying off livestock.
The changes have devastated the region's once-flourishing condor population. Biologists estimate that fewer than 150 condors are left in Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela combined, and the birds' numbers are dwindling in Bolivia and Peru.
About 2,000 condors still survive in Argentina and Chile, but expanding human development is pushing them into southern and central pockets of the Andean range.
"The condors' distribution is diminishing," said Mauricio Fabry, the chief veterinarian of the metropolitan zoo in the Chilean capital of Santiago. "They're being pushed into farther-out parts of the mountains and, in some cases, almost out of entire countries."
That's worried many people in a region where the condor has long been a symbol of national identity and a cultural icon. The bird is featured prominently, for example, on the national seals of Chile, Bolivia, Colombia and Ecuador, and one of Chile's most-beloved comic book characters is Condorito, a talking bird who wears typical Chilean dress.
Despite the affection, attempts to save the condor are rare and have produced mixed results.
Two decades ago, the Chingaza National Park in the Colombian Andes released into the wild five pairs of Andean condors that had been raised in captivity at the San Diego Zoo in California. Four of the condors eventually died, never having learned how to find their own food in the wild. Even worse, none of the condors reproduced.
"We didn't have any way to properly raise them," park director Carlos Lora said. "We're very worried, because if they don't produce any chicks soon, this project will end."
One effort that's met with some success is a joint Argentine-Chilean project that's rehabilitated and released dozens of condors since 2000, many of them originally found nearly dead on roadsides or in fields.
On a recent afternoon at the Santiago zoo, veterinarians participating in the program took in a baby condor found near the Chilean city of Concepcion that had apparently lost its parents and was having trouble eating. Zoo officials set about feeding the bird and eventually will send it to the Talagante facility.
"The Andes of Chile and Argentina are the last refuge for the condors, especially in the wildest areas," said biologist Eduardo Pavez, who helps lead the binational program. "Everywhere else, the food cycle of the condor has been interrupted."
What brings some hope to South American biologists is the successful revival of the California condor, which was on the verge of extinction just a few decades ago.
The California condor is still endangered, but about 150 of them have been successfully released into the wilds of the Southwestern United States over the past two decades, said Michael Wallace, a project scientist at the San Diego Zoo's Conservation and Research for Endangered Species center.
"The prospect for the species looks good now," Wallace said. "And we expect the numbers to continue growing."
In the cross-hemisphere race to save the bird, the exchange of knowledge and, in some cases, condor specimens has worked both ways.
U.S. officials helped learn tactics for saving the California condor by raising the Andean bird in captivity and experimenting with releases into the wilds of California. South American biologists have tried to regenerate local populations by releasing Andean condors raised in captivity in the United States.
The Chileans say the U.S. example shows that condor populations can be rejuvenated. But the challenge here, they say, is to prevent the condor from having to make a comeback in the first place.
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