Los Angeles — Though a scavenger by nature, the California condor looks graceful and guileless in flight. Flying against the backdrop of a cobalt sky, the majestic vulture -- the largest of North American birds, with a wingspan of up to 10 feet -- can be a breathtaking sight. But there is rising concern over how much longer that image will be seen in the wild. A six-year-old effort to save the endangered bird is entering a critical phase -- and raising questions about how far man should go in using captive breeding to save vanishing species.
The debate is an old one. In recent years, zoos and other institutions have increasingly turned to captive breeding as a way to help save declining or endangered species. Many of these efforts have been successful. The Arabian oryx, for instance, a hoofed mammal similar to the antelope, has been restored to its original habitat as a result of successful breeding at the Phoenix, Los Angeles, and San Diego zoos.
Populations of golden-lion tamarin, a rare monkey from the coastal forests of Brazil, are now on the upswing in that country, due in part to a breeding program at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. So, too, have the whooping crane and masked bobwhite quail been edged back from the brink of extinction with the help of captive breeding.
Underlying many of these efforts, however, is a lingering concern that more effort should be put into preserving species in the wild. The debate has become particularly acute as regards the condor. So few of the majestic vultures remain -- only five in the wild and 22 in captivity -- that the US Fish and Wildlife Service wants to bring them all in. Six condors in the wild died last winter.
But the National Audubon Society, which has been one of the leading groups involved in the condor survival program, opposes the idea. While the society supports the concept of captive breeding, it contends that the roundup will reduce the condors' chances for survival by threatening their habitat and making reestablish-ment of a wild population difficult.
Audubon has filed suit to keep the Fish and Wildlife Service from capturing the remaining birds. Last week, a federal judge in Washington, D.C, issued a temporary restraining order barring the roundup. A permanent ruling is expected by the end of the month.
Audubon officials are concerned that without any birds left in the wild, there won't be the incentive to protect the condors' habitat, a mountainous area north of Los Angeles. This would make it difficult to release captive condors at some future date.
``We have a moral responsibility to keep that animal out there, to preserve its integrity,'' says Jesse Grantham, an Audubon research biologist.
Capture of all the remaining birds would be a dramatic step. Animal experts say there have been only a few cases in the past in which all members of a particular species were brought in to avoid extinction. Fish and Wildlife officials believe the move is necessary in this case to reduce inbreeding in the captive population, thus increasing the odds that captive condors will be able to produce strong offspring for eventual release. They also contend the mortality rate has been high enough that the survival of the remaining birds can't be left to chance.
``With only 27 birds left, every one is a valuable commodity,'' says Jan Riffe, chief of wildlife research for the federal agency, though he adds that the agency may delay capturing a mating pair of birds until they produce eggs.
Underscoring federal officials' anxiety was the capture last week of a female California condor suffering from lead poisoning. The bird had eight pieces of lead in its body. Seven of them were shotgun pellets, though experts believe the source of the poisoning was a fragment the bird probably picked up while feeding on a bullet-ridden carcus. The condor, still in critical condition, is being treated at the San Diego Wild Animal Park, where 10 other condors are in captivity.
Researchers are uncertain what has led to the decline of the condor, particularly in recent years. But they suspect that pesticide and lead poisoning, hunting, and destruction of habitat have been major culprits. It is certain that their numbers won't dramatically increase any time soon, if ever. Condors take six to seven years to reach sexual maturity and produce offspring. And they produce only one to three eggs each season.
So far, 12 condors have been hatched in captivity, from eggs taken from birds in the wild. None have yet breeded in zoos. Scientists don't expect that to happen for a year or two.