PENA NEGRA ARMY BASE, Colombia — On a craggy perch 13,000 feet above sea level, 43 soldiers spend their days peeling potatoes, watching sappy soap operas and trying to insulate their flimsy barracks from roaring winds and fierce cold.
Their job, ostensibly, is to protect a radio tower and mainframe communications equipment from anti-government guerrillas who have been waging war since the 1960s. But the wanted posters on the base’s bulletin board feature rebel operatives from the 1990s, and the reports labeled “secret” detail guerrilla activity dating back more than two years.
So instead of looking out for rebel movements, the soldiers use their binoculars to search for birds — very big birds, with wings spanning 11 feet.
It turns out that Squad G of Mechanized Group No. 1 of the Colombian army’s 1st Brigade is perfectly positioned here on Pena Negra, or Black Cliff, to track the magnificent Andean condors that float on fast-moving thermals 15,000 feet in the sky.
“Here, there is not much of a conflict,” said Edison Quitian, 34, a soldier recently assigned to the base. “Since we are here, watching out over everything, then we can monitor the condors, and if anything is wrong, let the right people know.”
In an 11-year career, Quitian has been assigned to muggy lowland regions swarming with rebels and brimming with violence. Now, he said, he rarely raises his Israeli-made Galil assault rifle. The only time he takes aim is when the condors knife through the sky and he snaps their picture.
“It is not every day that you see them,” Quitian said. “So we take their pictures. You could not have imagined that you would come across these birds.”
The soldiers’ excitement about the condors is reassuring to Olga Lucia Nunez, a biologist who roams the high peaks and deep valleys of these mountains, in Boyaca state in central Colombia, recruiting farmers, shepherds and, most recently, soldiers, in a broad effort to monitor and protect the birds.
With funding from Corpoboyaca, the state environmental agency, Nunez’s environmental group, Fundetropico, is working with U.S. zoos to spur the condor population. Success largely hinges on ensuring that rural villagers, who traditionally hunt wild game, do not target the 30 or so condors that patrol above this mountain range.
“We want people to know these are a special species,” Nunez said. “Farmers have heard stories that the condors snatch children, that they kill calves, even that they are witches. So you have to talk to them, you have to explain.”
Going from hamlet to farmhouse, speaking in rural one-room schoolhouses and rustic churches, Nunez has patiently explained the wonders of vultur gryphus, the national bird here and in three other Andean countries. To many of those she encounters, the condors are simply fearsome creatures, with their powerful beaks, chickenlike claws, black cape of feathers and beady red eyes.
Nunez, though, makes clear that condors do not kill livestock, nor do they fly off with children. Rather, they are a vital part of one of the most unusual ecosystems in the world, the high paramo, with its carpet of squishy plant life that collects huge amounts of water, which nature sporadically releases to feed Colombia’s rivers.
“They keep the mountains clean,” said Nunez, noting that an adult can quickly gulp down several pounds of decomposing flesh, using a tubelike neck to poke around inside a carcass.
To reestablish the condor, Colombian and American biologists came up with a novel approach — raising condor chicks in U.S. zoos and then releasing them on Colombian peaks, where they are then monitored via tiny radio transmitters attached to their wings.
Michael Mace, curator of birds at the San Diego Zoo, said the chicks are brought up by their parents and placed in social groups where they interact with other condors. When they are about a year old, he said, they are sent to Colombia.
“We’re trying to raise the absolute best condor possible for release,” Mace said by phone from San Diego, one of 16 American zoos raising condors for release here. “They’re not animals that are raised to where they act like people or want to be around people.”
Mace said a milestone was reached after biologists recorded that released birds had begun raising their own offspring. “What we’re looking for now is exponential growth in that population,” he said, noting that biologists will soon be tracking the birds by satellite telemetry.
It is slow going, though.
Condors take four or five years to mature enough to raise offspring. Even then, they only lay an egg every two years. Success is measured in a hatchling or two, or in the rare sighting of a small group of condors. Seventy-one condors have been released in Colombia over 20 years, and this country’s overall condor population is only now approaching 200.
But Nunez said the total number of condors is more than twice what it was early in the past decade, and the birds are now flying in regions where they had not been seen in years, such as Boyaca. It is a dramatic turnaround, she said, from 2004, when the first birds were released in these mountains.
“They didn’t know how to find food,” she recalled with a laugh. “They didn’t know how to fly. They didn’t know how to deal with the weather, either. They’re from San Diego!”
There have been setbacks. Three of the 11 condors released in Boyaca have died — one ate poison, another was electrocuted by a power line and a third was found shot by the side of a road.
But the other condors raised in American zoos appear to be faring well, Nunez said, and another 20 or so have migrated here from other mountain ranges.
To catch sight of the birds requires a rocky, bumpy ride on narrow mountain passes to Pena Negra and the army base.
The commanding lieutenant on a recent day, Rodrigo Correa, 22, said he did not even know what a condor was until Nunez showed up one day to give a lecture on the birds.
“You normally see this kind of stuff on the Discovery Channel,” Correa said. “We decided to take it seriously and take part in the program.”
Now, the soldiers not only photograph the birds — pictures Nunez needs to keep track of the released condors, which wear special markings — but they also keep logs. Nunez has encouraged the soldiers to dump the remains of the cows they occasionally slaughter to provide the condors with a little extra food.
“It was 30 kilos of decomposing meat, intestines and skin,” Cpl. Manuel Vargas said, describing the meal the condors had on a recent day. “Six condors came, they fed, they rested and then they flew off. They just threw themselves into the abyss.”