March 21 - California's San Diego Zoo has welcomed another newly-hatched California condor into its nursery, the latest addition in a conservation program credited with rescuing the species from extinction. The condor, with a wingspan of more than nine feet, was all but wiped out just 25 years ago, but the zoo's efforts have ensured the species is soaring again. Tara Cleary reports.
Moments old, a California condor chick meets its parents live via San Diego Zoo's Condor-cam. The new arrival is the latest in a long-term program to save the condor from extinction. Launched in 1987, the Condor Recovery Program was seen as last-ditch effort. At the time, the wild population had dropped to just 22, brought to its knees by lead poisoning. The birds were dying after eating the carcasses of animals hunted with lead-based bullets. North America' s largest bird, with a wing-span of more than nine feet, was on the verge of disappearing, and scientists at the zoo decided they had to act. They collected all 22 known birds and brought them to the zoo to form the basis of what curator Michael Mace calls a "double breeding" program. SOUNDBITE: MICHAEL MACE, SAN DIEGO ZOO SAFARI PARK CURATOR OF BIRDS, SAYING (English): "With condors in the wild in their normal biology, a pair of birds will raise one chick every two years. But in a setting like this where we have a controlled environment at the Safari Park, we can "double clutch", which means we remove the first egg they lay, put it in an incubator, and in about 30 days, the parents will lay a replacement egg. And so now we're raising two chicks in the same year." After twenty five years of double breeding, there are now nearly 400 condors in the wild, 172 of which were born at San Diego Zoo's Wildlife Park. The hatchlings born in incubators are raised by keepers using hand puppets that look like condors. Mace says it's important that the puppets are the only entity used to feed, groom and interact with the chicks. SOUNDBITE: MICHAEL MACE, SAN DIEGO ZOO SAFARI PARK CURATOR OF BIRDS, SAYING (English): "The ultimate goal is to take that chick and put it back out in the wild. The last thing we want is for them to recognize humans and start to go to human dwellings and homes, at tents sites, getting on highways and such things that would be detrimental to the species." Wildlife disease expert, Dr. Bruce Rideout, says despite the program's success, lead pellets are still the condor's greatest enemy. SOUNDBITE: DR BRUCE RIDEOUT, DIRECTOR, WILDLIFE DISEASE LABORATORIES, INSTITUTE FOR CONSERVATION RESEARCH, SAYING (English): "This bird has ingested lead ammunition in the form of shot gun pellets, and you can see them here. These two white spots here and in the upper GI tract, the gizzard of this condor, and then the lead is absorbed from that." Rideout says lead ammunition is still in wide use among game hunters. SOUNDBITE: DR BRUCE RIDEOUT, DIRECTOR, WILDLIFE DISEASE LABORATORIES, INSTITUTE FOR CONSERVATION RESEARCH, SAYING (English): "When a hunter cleans a carcass in the field, they'll leave part of it behind, and very often those parts have lead ammunition left in them. If the condors then come and feed at those sites they'll ingest the lead ammunition and suffer lead toxicosis." Efforts are underway to have lead bullets replaced with non-lead based ammunition but conservationists say its an arduous political process. Meanwhile, the San Diego zoo is building on its breeding success by enlisting the public. The park's Condor-cam is live on-line, giving viewers unprecedented, real-time access to the birds' private lives so, as a species, it can continues to soar above the American west. Tara Cleary, Reuters.