Timidly taking its first steps in the wild, the young condor perches on a rocky plateau as a hot breeze swirls upward from the barren Patagonian landscape.
Raised in captivity, the 1-year-old gathers the courage to attempt its first flight, unfurling its 10-foot wings and flapping skyward — before landing awkwardly on rocks a short distance away.
Condors, the world's largest flying birds, once soared by the thousands along jagged mountain ridges across South America until nearly dying out with the spread of civilization over the centuries.
Scientists here are trying to return them to the wild after near extinction.
On Wednesday, two condors, one raised in captivity, the other a rescued bird, were released in Sierra Paileman, about 680 miles south of Buenos Aires, bringing to seven the number of condors freed from this spot. Across South America, 40 condors have been released to the wild since 1991.
Two others are awaiting release later in 2005 from the same fenced-in enclosure.
"Letting them go is a symbol of the condors who once flew here," said Luis Jacome, director of the Andean Condor Conservation Project. "It is important to Argentina both culturally and ecologically."
Watching from hundreds of feet below the ridge, an Indian spiritual guide, Tayta Ullpu, played a wooden flute in an ancient highland ritual said to coax the birds to fly.
As if on cue, the hollow sound of the flute seems to summon the first bird to flap its wings. "The spirit of the condor returns to the sea," said Ullpu of the bird's flight.
About 40 minutes later, the second condor emerged from the enclosure and took a shaky test flight, landing a few feet from its companion.
The Andean Condor Conservation Project, begun in 1991, has also opened a window for scientists into the habits of the giant, soaring birds that ride the thermals, traveling up to 150 miles a day to survive as scavengers in the harsh landscapes they inhabit.
In 1997, the first condors to wear solar-powered satellite transmitters on their wings were released. The birds freed Wednesday were also tagged with wing transmitters.
Using the transmitters and a specialized computer program, the condors' previously mysterious flight patterns and the locations of roosts have become clearer, allowing experts to refine their conservation strategy.
The vast range of condors reduces the protective areas of national parks to isolated islands of safety.
"Condors don't worry about passports or country borders," Jacome points out.
Chile and Argentina have the largest remaining condor populations, sharing about 4,000 birds between the two countries, according to Fundacion Bioandina, a conservation group.
The condor was declared extinct in Venezuela in 1965, and less than 100 still survive in the wild in Ecuador and Colombia, according to the group. The populations in Peru and Bolivia have also declined.
At the conservation project, some birds are rescued, treated and released. Birds incubated in captivity are raised in the presence of latex puppets — made to look like adult condors — to prevent the chicks from imprinting on humans.
There have been disappointments in the program, too: one released condor flew into a high-voltage power line in Venezuela, one was poisoned and another was shot by hunters in Chile.
Jacome notes that educating people about the condor is still the most crucial aspect of the program, as some people still fear an adult condor could kill livestock or carry off small children.
"There is no way we can let these birds go without educating people," Jacome said. "It takes years to raise a condor and only seconds to kill it."
By Vanessa Nichols