Each year, a small group of young California condors are selected from the pool of birds being bred by the Los Angeles Zoo, San Diego Zoo Safari Park, Oregon Zoo, and The Peregrine Fund for release to the wild at our reintroduction site in Baja California, Mexico. While genetics determines which are selected, a large amount of paperwork and logistics coordination between US and Mexican partners is required to determine a date for the transfer. This year, the date was set for April 4, 2014, and the transfer of six birds—the largest ever transfer to occur—involved two small planes and two four-wheel drive trucks to move our precious cargo from Los Angeles to its intended destination in the Sierra San Pedro de Martir National Park, Mexico.
Every step of this move is carefully planned and executed to ensure the safest, smoothest possible trip for the birds. As you may know, international travel can be stressful. It starts with visas and passports. All the birds have to have adequate documentation and permits prior to their move. Then comes the packing. Each bird has a specially fitted kennel to ensure a safe and secure environment for travel. Next, it’s time to head to the airport and through security. Los Angles Zoo staff delivered the birds to the Burbank airport, where Fish and Wildlife Service inspectors made sure all the paperwork was valid and in place. Dr. Mike Wallace and I accompanied our birds.
We flew to Burbank from San Diego early in the morning to meet the team and birds. Two of us accompanied the birds on this trip because two planes were necessary to fly all six birds to Mexico. Why two planes? Our destination runway is short—only small planes can land on the airstrip! This knowledge made me just a little nervous, since this was my first trip to Mexico, and flying is not my favorite mode of transportation. Dr. Wallace, on the other hand, has had years of experience in making this very special trip; so, too, had our pilots, Phil and John, who generously volunteer their time in the spirit of true conservationists. This knowledge was my mantra to keep my nerves in check!
After loading the birds onto the planes, our first destination was the Tijuana airport. Mexican officials greeted us and checked our cargo and paperwork. After that, we flew on across the Baja Peninsula, through the clouds and over beautiful layered mountain ranges to a ranch close to the Sierra San Pedro de Martir National Park. Flying in, the runway did look a little on the short side. We landed with dust billowing out behind the two small planes and me breathing a huge sigh of relief!
On the runway, an entourage of park staff, the condor staff team, and the military—in a Hummer—met us. The soldiers cheerfully inspected our cargo and were genuinely happy to learn about the return of the California condor to Mexico. Many hands meant the birds were swiftly transferred to two four -wheel drive trucks for the short drive up to the top of the National Park and to our quarantine aviary.
At the aviary, all six crated birds were lined up inside for release. Dr. Wallace opened the crate doors carefully and observed the behavior of each bird as it exited into its new environment. All six birds behaved normally, and after a few final observations, we left them to settle into their temporary new home. Several of them stretched their wings and seemed to revel in the fresh breeze blowing and the smell of the pine trees surrounding them on this very special sunny day in Mexico.
The birds will go through a short period of quarantine and will be released to the wild in late spring, joining the growing population of California condors flying free over this most spectacular national park. I was honored to bear witness to their safe transfer to Mexico and extend my immense gratitude to all the partners and donors who help make this incredible bi-national conservation program possible.
Allyson Walsh, Ph.D., is an associate director in the Applied Animal Ecology Division of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Planning a Perfect Desert (Tortoise) Getaway.