Patagonian condor restocking campaign faces threat from wind farms

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NATACHA PISARENKO and DANIEL POLITI Associated Press

SIERRA PAILEMAN, Argentina – It was a sunny morning when around 200 people climbed a hill in Argentina’s southern Patagonia region with a singular mission: to free two captive-born Andean condors.

The emotion in the air was palpable as conservationists prepared for a moment that so many had been working on for months. But the joyful moment was also bittersweet.

Preliminary plans for a massive wind farm that could be located on the Somuncura plateau to power a green hydrogen project jeopardizes a three-decade effort to repopulate Patagonia’s Atlantic coast with a bird listed as vulnerable to the extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

As members of the Mapuche, the region’s largest indigenous group, played traditional instruments and children tossed condor feathers into the air symbolizing their good wishes for the newly freed birds, an eerie silence engulfed the Sierra Paileman mountain in the province of Rio Negro as researchers opened the cages where the two specimens of the world’s largest flying bird were kept.

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As soon as the cage opened, Huasi – which means house in Quechua – spread its wings and flew away without hesitation. Yastay – which means patron god of birds – seemed unsure of the open skies after spending his first two years in captivity, and it took him about an hour to take off.

People hugged as researchers began tracking the birds. In the back of their minds, they worried about what the potential for new wind farms in the area might mean for these birds.

In neighboring Chile, an environmental impact study for a planned wind farm with 65 wind turbines concluded that up to four rare condors could collide with the massive structures each year. Environmental authorities rejected the project last year.

“Why do we release two? We usually release more than two,” said Vanesa Astore, executive director of the Andean condor conservation program. “We are at a maintenance level now.”

Researchers had to release Huasi and Yastay now or risk that they would have to remain in captivity for the rest of their lives, which can be 70 to 80 years, Astore explained, noting that condors can only adapt to the outside world. if they are released. before their third birthday.

Ongoing uncertainty over the wind farm planned by Australian company Fortescue Future Industries has prompted conservationists to slow the pace of breeding and release of Andean condors, even as the company insists it does not have the intention to settle on the Somuncura plateau.

Condors are notoriously slow breeders that only reach sexual maturity at age 9 and have offspring every three years, but researchers have found ways to speed this up by removing eggs from captive pairs to incubate artificially. . When the egg is removed, the pair produce another egg within a month, which they will raise while the first is raised by humans using latex puppets intended to simulate their parents and help recognize members of their own species.

This strategy allows researchers to “increase reproductive capacity sixfold,” said Luis Jacome, Andean condor conservation program manager.

This effort is now on hiatus.

“We don’t max out because I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Astore explained.

Since the conservation program began 30 years ago, 81 chicks have been born in captivity, 370 condors have been rehabilitated and 230 released across South America, including Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Chile and Bolivia.

Sixty-six of them were released along the Atlantic coast of Patagonia, where the bird was not found at the turn of the century, although Charles Darwin had written in the early 1800s about the presence of large birds in the region.

The return of the Andean condor has spiritual resonance for many locals.

“The condor flies very high, so our elders used to say that the condor could carry a message to those who are no longer there,” said Doris Canumil, 59, a Mapuche who took part in condor release ceremonies.

As they celebrate the program’s success, conservationists fear it will all be wiped out.

“These birds that we released, which again joined the mountain range with the sea through their flight, which matured and had their own offspring living and flying here in this place, they will simply die in the blades of the windmills,” Jacome said. “So the condor would die out again on the Atlantic coast.”

Last year, Fortescue unveiled a plan to invest $8.4 billion over a decade in a green hydrogen production project for export. To be considered green, hydrogen must be produced from renewable energy, and that’s where the wind farm would come in. The government of President Alberto Fernández celebrated the project, saying it would create 15,000 direct jobs and somewhere between 40,000 and 50,000 indirect jobs.

The Australian company said any pre-development study will include consultation with local organizations to “ensure the protection of local species such as the Andean condor”.

On October 11, the provincial government of Rio Negro said Fortescue had launched a 12-month effort to analyze the environmental and social impacts of the project.

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