30 Jan 2018

34 Andean Condors found dead in Argentina - the poisoning needs to stop

Vulture deaths through poisoning aren’t just a problem in Africa and Eurasia. As a recent shocking incident shows, their American relatives are also being decimated – showing the urgent need for stronger laws to prevent future tragedy.

The Andean Condor is classed as Threatened in Argentina due to plummeting populations © Pedro Szekely
The Andean Condor is classed as Threatened in Argentina © Pedro Szekely
By Francisco González Táboas, Aves Argentinas

On Monday, January 22, the conservation world was hit by devastating news. That day, 34 Andean Condors Vultur gryphus had been found dead alongside the remains of a puma, and livestock including sheep and goats, near the town of Los Molles, Mendoza Province, in the Andes mountains of Argentina.

"While this is not the first such case of mass condor deaths in Argentina, the record number of deceased individuals raises a huge red flag," says Hernán Casañas, Executive Director of Aves Argentinas (BirdLife Partner).

These 34 condors raise the death toll to over 60 individuals killed in Argentina in the past year alone. This includes 19 condors found dead in Jujuy Province in March 2017, in another mass fatality.

Meat is laced with toxic substances such as rat poison

The cause of death is as heartbreaking as it is needless. In Argentina, many ranchers use poisoned bait to combat predators such as foxes, puma and eagles which may otherwise prey on their livestock. Although the practice is prohibited, this doesn’t stop them from lacing carcasses or pieces of meat with toxic substances such as rat poison. More recently, it has been proven that people are also using toxic agricultural pesticides such as carbofuran. Researchers confirmed that this is the substance that caused the most recent tragedy. In fact, lab resultus show that carbofuran is, in fact, the cause of death for all of the last 66 condor casualties.

 

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One target, 35 casualties © Secretaría de Ambiente y Ordenamiento Territorial de Mendoza

 

And it really is a tragedy, with massive repercussions on the Andean Condor population as a whole. Globally, the species is classified as Near Threatened, but its plummeting population in Argentina qualifies it as Threatened on a national scale. It is estimated that there are only 6,700 Andean condors left in the world, of which about 2,500 are in Argentina.

A video that went viral online, created by the Conservation Biology Research Group (Grupo de Investigaciones en Biología de la Conservación), captured the public’s attention with a powerful comparison. It drove home the point that the proportion of condors in the Mendoza and Jujuy killings (compared to the world condor population) is equivalent in proportion to the whole human population of Argentina and Chile (compared to the world human population).

 

What would a slaughter like this look like in human terms? © Conservation Biology Research Group (Grupo de Investigaciones en Biología de la Conservación)

 

Andean Condors take a long time to reach maturity, and even then, their birth rate is relatively low. Consequently, these mass deaths are a particularly big blow to the species, especially since most of the deceased were adults cut off in their reproductive prime. It is a blow from which condor populations in the Mendoza, Argentina, will take many years to recover.

“Andean Condors can’t survive those mortality rates."

Sergio Lambertucci of the Conservation Biology Research Group* highlights the urgency of the situation: “Andean Condors can’t survive those mortality rates. The use of poison must stop if we still want to see condors flying over the Andes range.”

The condor’s image isn’t helped by the misguided, but still persistent, belief that condors attack livestock like sheep and goats. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. The condor is a scavenger that needs its prey to be dead already. Just like their relatives, the vulture, they do not even have claws capable of seizing a rabbit or hare in flight.

The condor isn’t helped by the belief that they attack livestock. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth

Far from being a menace, the condor has a huge amount of value in multiple senses. The condor is a sacred animal in many Andean cultures. It is the national bird of Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, and Bolivia – a symbol of pride for them to rally round. And it has great economic value as one of the most imposing species of bird, or even animal, on earth. It dazzles tourists from all corners of the globe, who come to the Andes to enjoy nothing less than the largest flying land bird on the planet.

However, the most important role condors play is their role in nature. They are the top scavengers, essential for the health of the environment as nature’s “clean-up crew”. In the Americas, condors occupy the same ecological niche as the vultures in Africa and Eurasia. While they are not close relatives, their importance is exactly the same.

 

The Andean Condor's sharp beak makes it an efficient member of nature's "clean-up crew" © Ltshears

 

What does unite them is their biggest problem: death by poisoning, be it due to the diclofenac and similar drugs used for veterinary purposes in Asia and Europe, or poisoned bait in Africa, which is often laced with the exact same carbofuran as in Argentina. This has rendered seven of Africa’s eleven vulture species globally threatened with extinction. Last year, an ambitious Multi-Species Action Plan was approved for African-Eurasian Vultures. It is hoped that many of the conservation techniques used there can be transferred to the Americas.

Criminal justice authorities are leading an investigation to find the culprits

The good news is that Aves Argentinas is helping to develop a new regulation that allows toxic agricultural pesticides like carbofuran to be traced, in order to identify who is buying it and what it is used for. "We urgently need a pesticide traceability law", stresses Hernán Casañas. 

As for the most recent tragedy in Los Molles, criminal justice authorities are leading an investigation to find the culprits and impose the appropriate fines or sentences. The case has also received significant visibility in the media and among the general public. Although the tragedy is deeply saddening, one thing it has done is to raise a great deal of awareness, which we hope will help to avoid similar tragedies in the future.


Read more about BirdLife International's work tackling the Vulture Crisis here: https://www.birdlife.org/worldwide/vulture-crisis

*Director of the Group of Researchers in Conservation Biology GRINBIC from the Argentine Research Council, INIBIOMA-CONICET