TEARS OF THE CONDOR

A baby condor living amongst the Uros Islanders of Lake Titicaca, Peru.

by Kathy Doore

According to Andean Shamanism, condor is a messenger of the gods circling high above the Andes bringing the souls of the deceased into the realm of the dead, reenacting the mysteries of life and death.

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Nearly obscured by the glare of the mid-day sun reflecting off the great lake, my eyes strained to focus on the bundle of grey feathers perched on a bale of totora reed. All at once, I realized I was staring at a living condor, whose name I would learn was Mallku. An Aymara word meaning Great Prince or Initiated One and associated with the legend of the First People emerging from Lake Titicaca at the beginning of time, Mallku had been rescued as a tiny chick when his mother was killed for her feathers.

Considered sacred by the rural people of the Andes, the feathers of a condor are highly esteemed for use in ritual magic. A decision was made to rescue the chick where he would spend his youth living amongst the Uros Islanders. Raised as a pet and later tethered to a bale of straw to keep him from soaring aloft, landing on their fragile straw roofs and caving them in, he continued to grow in size. Hand-fed raw meat and delicacies from the sea, the tiny chick was now a 20-pound adolescent who would nevermore feel the wind against his wings. With that thought in mind my heart sank. Mallku’s future was uncertain.

His guardians expressed interest in releasing him, yet after years in captivity it was unknown if the bird could fend for himself. He might prefer the company of humans, thus sealing his fate. If kept in captivity Mallku would continue to grow into a 33 lb. adult with a 10-foot wingspan, possibly living up to 80 years. As my friend carefully extended her open palm, Mallku’s massive beak gently nibbled at the crumbs she offered.

Primarily a scavenger, Mallku’s daily consumption was beginning to eclipse the economy of the tiny floating community. He soon became the chief income earner– a tourist attraction, warranting donations for his upkeep. We watched as his guardian poured buckets of fresh lake water over his head and feathers as he stood patiently in his little rubber bath tub. Occasionally extending his wings, he would dry his massive feathers in the noon day sun.

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Awash in emotion, privileged to be so near a great condor, yet torn by the implication, I recalled the myth of Icarus. Fleeing captivity, Icarus fashioned wings of wax and flew to close to the sun, plunging to a watery grave. The Icarian Sea is named after him. Will Mallku too face a life of confinement? Or be set free to fly to close to humans?  In 2012 my question was answered when Mallku was removed by court order to a Condor Sanctuary near Cusco. He will live out his years with other condors, and hopefully mate for life.

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Above: 7-year old Mallku sporting his white feather necklace in 2012, just before his departure to Cusco’s Condor Sanctuary.

EPILOGUE

The Andean Condor continues to hovers on the edge of extinction. Reintroduction of the Andean condor into its native habitat has helped sustain the birds in the wild.

Chicks in breeding programs held in captivity are fed with glove puppets which resemble adult Andean Condors in order to prevent the chicks from imprinting on humans, which would endanger them upon release as they would not be wary of humans. The condors are kept in aviaries for three months prior to release, where they acclimatize to an environment similar to that which they will be released in the Andean altiplano.

If the program is successful, Mallku’s chicks may one day fly free.