While hiking around Cotopaxi National Park, our guide pointed out a tiny pinprick silhouette almost beyond the scope of our sight. Was he right in assuring us it was an Andean condor? I don't know, but it was the nearest I've ever come to seeing one in the wild. Vultur gryphus, Ecuador's national bird, is not easy to find these days despite its 3m (9 3/4-ft.) wingspan, 11-kilogram (25-lb.) body, and legs and claws the size of a man's forearm and fist. It is the biggest raptor on the planet, but according to estimates, a mere 70 birds remain in isolated populations around Antisana, Cotopaxi, El Altar, and El Angel, and near the Papallacta Pass.

Dating back to the Pleistocene age, the Andean condor once thrived in an era when mastodons were their primary source of carrion. They nearly went extinct along with their large food sources, but made a comeback when Spanish settlers began introducing massive sheep and cow herds on the high Andean paramo.

The condor boasts other impressive stats. Maturing at around 7 years of age, condors can live to 60. They mate for life, with both sexes incubating the egg, which is laid every 2 years (so junior gets nearly 2 years of parenting before leaving home). An overall glossy black plumage gives way to a neat, white neck ruff into which apparently high-soaring birds tuck their bald heads when flying at sub-zero temperatures. That lack of head and neck feathers ensures that the carrion-eating condor easily keeps itself free of germs after tucking into a carcass. The condor can spot a dead animal from miles away, and is known to follow smaller raptors on the hunt to get in on the meal -- because no other bird will mess with a condor, it has a guaranteed place at the table. Oh, and it turns out that the condor is not in the vulture family: Biochemical studies now place it genetically with storks!

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As usual, the main threat to this magnificent creature is humans. Although it is a carrion feeder, the condor has historically had a reputation for preying on young animals, placing it in direct conflict with highland farmers. Most ranchers will kill condors on sight, and it has been a traditional rite of passage for a young man to bag a bird to prove his virility. In the past, local communities would lure a condor into traps baited with rotting meat. The captive bird was then strapped to a bull depicting Spanish domination over the conquered native population. If the condor succeeded in flying free, it was a sign of good fortune for the community.

Condors need lots of air space and land to thrive, and evidence suggests that breeding programs and reintroductions into the wild can succeed. An ambitious Nature Conservancy/USAID-supported program, embracing nearly 2.2 million hectares (5.4 million acres) ranging from Antisana, Cotopaxi, Cayambe, and dropping to the Amazon rainforests to the east, might help tip the balance. With a multifaceted, functional-landscape approach, the Condor Bioreserve aims to protect the main watershed providing Quito's drinking water, defend indigenous reserves, and encourage farmers to create wildlife corridors. Keep your eyes open, your head in the air, and hope.

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