I’ve been fortunate to witness some fairly mystical animal sightings around the planet. Those I want to see usually turn up with little effort on my part. Once I stumbled through a forest in Thailand looking for a tiger, without results. An hour later, one ran across the road in front of my vehicle, and I was able to watch it at leisure as it navigated in the open around a herd of sambar deer.
When Poland was still behind the Iron Curtain, I went with a gamekeeper looking for the rare European bison in the Bialowieza Forest, one of Europe’s last untouched woodlands, straddling the border of what was then the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. Moments after we set up at dawn, the great shaggy bull emerged from mist and cold October rain, followed by a half-dozen cows and calves. Pleistocene hunters, I imagined, had witnessed much the same scene.
In 1981, on assignment in Peru, I arrived at an isolated Civil Guard outpost located at an Indian village and agricultural station more than 13,000 feet up on the altiplano (high plain) of the Andes. Sendero Luminoso – the Shining Path Maoist guerrillas – had begun their insurgency in the immediate area just months before. But the police could not patrol because they lacked fuel. The radio operator had to borrow some from my vehicle to power a call to Lima.
A couple of hours after I arrived, I climbed to the top of a ridge 1,000 feet or so above the post. Just as I topped it, as if on cue, an Andean condor soared across the crystal blue sky, its immense wings flashing white under a blazing sun. That landscape was more monumental and brooding than any I had ever seen. Over it all, on unseen air currents, rode the condor – a bird of death.
It was ironic evidence that in this brutal environment atop South America’s spine, life flourished. The dead, on whom the condor depended to live, could only come from a flourishing community of living creatures.