Return of the Native

updated 02/10/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/10/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

IT WAS MIDMORNING ON JAN. 14, AND wildlife biologist Mike Wallace sat huddled in a bird blind in Los Padres National Forest, north of Los Angeles. As a cold wind cut across chaparral-covered cliffs, Wallace trained a video camera on the hut 150 feet away. At 10:31 A.M., a Chumash Indian holding a ceremonial staff walked to the hut and opened a door. Moments later, two young California condors, Xewe and Chocuyens, wobbled out onto a sandstone ledge for a peek at their new world.

It was not nature's most graceful debut—the two 20-lb. condors hopped awkwardly for a full day before attaining lift-off in the local air currents. But it was a historic moment for the environment: For the first time an almost extinct bird completely removed from the wild was being reintroduced to nature. (The last free condor, A.C.9, was captured in 1987.) "To understand why the condor is worth saving, you need to see one fly," says Wallace, 41, director of the Los Angeles Zoo's California Condor Breeding Program. "It's been confused with a small plane. Its shadow is bigger than you can imagine."

Despite its apparent success, the rescue of the California condor, Gymnogyps californianus, from extinction has been one of the more contentious experiments in conservation history. Two hundred years ago, perhaps 2,000 of the big birds cruised the West Coast from Baja California to British Columbia. By 1982, thanks to hunting, pesticides and loss of habitat, the population had shrunk to about 21. In 1984-85, seven of the birds vanished. "They were dying like flies out there," says Wallace. "Without intervention, the birds were doomed."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's proposed solution—capture all the remaining birds, distribute them to two zoos and continue a breeding program begun in 1980—pleased almost no one. Local Chumash Indians opposed the capture, citing a tribal belief that the condor carries people's spirits to the afterlife. Friends of the Earth and the Audubon Society argued that the real cause of the species' decline, habitat destruction, was being ignored. The Sierra Club maintained that putting the birds in zoos would only hasten their decline.

But Wallace was optimistic. He had earned his Ph.D. in wildlife ecology, from the University of Wisconsin, practicing capture and release techniques on Andean condors. In 1985 he joined the L.A. Zoo and the San Diego Wild Animal Park specifically to work on the California Condor Recovery Program. But in 1987, the 27 captive birds were still too young and inexperienced to breed. Then in 1988 two mature birds produced an egg. The first offspring, Molloko, was born at the San Diego Zoo. Today, thanks to the subsequent success of captive breeding, the number of condors has grown to 52.

The birds' survival appeared secured, but it was still a captive species. The first step toward freedom came last spring when Xewe (pronounced GAY-wee, an Indian word meaning "casts a shadow") and Chocuyens ("valley of the moon") hatched. Biologists are keeping the first five offspring of each breeding pair to ensure a healthy gene pool; Xewe and Chocuyens were the first sixes, and thus the first to answer the call of the wild.

Fortunately, they return to a world more determined to see them survive than the one that doomed their ancestors. Both birds wear radio transmitters so biologists can track their movements, and to ensure a healthy diet, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service workers leave fresh meat at a feeding station near the hut. Hunters in the area are being asked to remove the remains of their kills, to decrease the chance that carrion-eating condors will eat carcasses tainted with lead shot. With such protections, Wallace gives Xewe and Chocuyens a better than 90 percent chance of leading normal 50-year lives. By 2020, the Condor Recovery Program hopes to establish communities of 150 condors each in the California wilderness, the Grand Canyon and the two zoos. Human assistance, Wallace hopes, eventually can be withdrawn entirely.

Back in the Los Padres Mountains on Jan. 15, the two condors took flight for the first time. "I feel great," Wallace said. "We're finally here, after years of preparation. To me, the condor is not only a species but a symbol of the wilderness. To save that for our children is something worth accomplishing."

LORENZO BENET in the Los Padres Mountains

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