LIMA (Reuters) - Strapping a giant condor to the back of a raging bull is a central part of an Andean festival celebrated in Peru but some people worried about the endangered vulture's future say it is time to ban the tradition.
A bill introduced to Congress this month aims to slow what scientists and ecologists describe as a worrisome drop-off in Peru's population of the Andean Condor, one of the world's biggest flying birds.
Condors, which use their 10-foot (3-meter) wingspan to ride rising warm air currents for hours without stopping, have been a prominent part of culture in the Andes for millennia.
The bill, presented by a legislator and backed by local officials in a province famous for its condors, would start a conservation program, declare the condor a national treasure and set jail sentences of 3-5 years for capturing or killing the birds.
It specifically targets the traditional "yawar" festival although there are no definitive statistics or scientific evidence on whether condors are hurt by the celebrations.
In an Andean twist on Spanish bull fighting, the ritual involves tying a condor, representing indigenous people, to the back of a wild bull, representing colonists.
Though it is too early to say if the measure will pass Congress, it will likely generate controversy over whether protecting the condor should trump the distinctive Peruvian tradition that supporters say pays homage to it.
At yawar festivals, held each year in an estimated two to three dozen towns in Peru's southern Andes, townspeople take turns running in front of a bull enraged by the condor clawing into its back.
Participants in the events say they take pains to protect the condor before freeing it from the bull because its injuries or death foreshadow bad luck for the entire village.
One of the bill's proponents, Elmer Caceres, the mayor of the province of Caylloma in the mountainous Arequipa region, said that view is naive.
"They step on the bird, pull at its wings, tie it onto a bull that's jumping and kicking and if it does not die then it flies away so traumatized it dies somewhere else," said Caceres. "This is a sick tradition and people who practice it should be thrown in jail."
Yuri Ortiz de Zevallos, a condor catcher for decades and now the mayor of the Cotabambas district in the region of Apurimac, is also concerned about declining numbers of condors.
"When I was young we could see 20, 30, even 40 condors gather around when we laid out the bait," said 50-year old Ortiz de Zevallos. "Now you will see maybe 5 or 10."
But he said the yawar festivals are being unfairly targeted. "I have never seen a condor die from a festival."
The condor's survival in Peru is also threatened by shrinking habitat due to development, including large mining projects in the highlands, the trafficking of its feathers and body parts. Fewer livestock now get lost and die, reducing a once-reliable supply of carrion for the bird.
There are no reliable figures on how many condors live in the Peruvian Andes today, and scientists say no exhaustive studies have been carried out here.
Jose Antonio Ochoa, a biologist in southern Peru who works with the Frankfurt Zoological Society, said all anecdotal evidence suggests an alarming decline in Peru, and put the population today at no more than 500.
The culture ministry has declared at least one annual yawar festival to be part of the country's heritage, and the legislation, if passed, might conflict with other Peruvian laws designed to protect cultural diversity.
"This is the product of exaggerated conservationist beliefs that lack respect for the Andean traditions that are so vital to the conservation of our cultural identity," said Juan Ossio, a former culture minister and anthropologist with Lima's Catholic University.
But Peru Antituarino, an animal rights group working to abolish bull fighting, said yawar festivals could end up finishing off the animal that is so central to Andean culture.
Condors have been exalted creatures along the Andes since before the Incan empire.
A 445-foot (135-meter) depiction of a condor is one of the best known Nazca Lines, the giant geoglyphs mysteriously etched into the Peruvian desert more than 1,500 years ago, and the Incan ruins of Machu Picchu feature a stone carving of a condor in flight, believed by some to have been an altar in a sacrificial temple.
Many Quechua-speaking communities today consider the condor sacred.
"The condor is the god of the Andes," said Ortiz de Zevallos. "Before we can capture it for the yawar festival, we have to make it offerings and tell it about our intentions."
Andean condors, which can fly more than 100 miles in a single day, used to be connected all along the mountains from Argentina to Venezuela as a single population.
Because fragmented groups no longer integrate, over the long-term they risk heading toward a genetic bottleneck, when in-breeding can result in defects like infertility.
Michael Mace, a birds specialist at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, said Peru could benefit from a captive breeding program.
The United States started a successful captive breeding program for the California Condor, a different and slightly smaller species, in the late 1980s after the population dwindled to just 22. Now that population stands at more than 400, with more in the wild than in captivity.
Andean Condors do not start reproducing until they are around 5 years old, and lay only one or two eggs at a time in nooks of remote canyons every other year.
Scientists at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and its partners say over the years they have successfully released Andean Condors in other South American countries.
At least 12 have been released in Venezuela, where they had been locally extinct since 1965, and 74 in Colombia, where some have already hatched offspring in the wild.
Ochoa said serious research and a national conservation program in Peru are long overdue. He and his colleagues are seeking funding for a year-long program to conduct a census and put tracking devices on condors to determine how many there are and how to best stop their decline.
"I think we should base our decisions on facts," Ochoa said about the bill that would ban yawar festivals. "It is premature to address threats if we do not even know how many there are."
Caceres, whose province slaughters donkeys every week to leave as food for the condors, said there might not be much time left. He said the Colca Canyon, a popular tourist destination twice as deep as the Grand Canyon, is now home to just 25 condors, a fraction from years past.
Some 80 percent of the region's visitors come to see the birds. "Condors create jobs and revenues in my community," he said. "And they connect me to my ancestors and my culture."
Reporting By Mitra Taj; Editing by Terry Wade and Kieran Murray