BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - An unprecedented number of Andean condors were found dead in western Argentina this week, threatening a symbolic bird whose numbers are dwindling in parts of South America.
The bodies of 34 condors, 20 males and 14 females, were reported to environmental authorities in Mendoza province, and toxicology tests suggested they had been poisoned, the province said in a statement.
Luis Jacome, director of the Andean Condor Conservation Project in Buenos Aires, said condor deaths from eating poisoned carcasses have become more common as a result of what authorities suspect is an effort to kill predators of cattle.
"This is reflecting the bad practices of ranchers in terms of toxic bait," he said in an interview on Thursday.
Sheep, goats and a puma were also found dead on Monday in the same area, near the town of Los Molles.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature considers the Andean condor a nearly threatened species, estimating South America has around 10,000 of the birds. They are more common in southern South America and are now very rare in Ecuador and Venezuela.
Vanesa Astore, executive director of the Condor Conservation project, said condors take a long time to mature and are slow to breed, making the poisoning of adults particularly devastating. One of the largest flying birds in the world, condors can live for about 70 years.
"This really puts conservationists on alert," she said. "It could lead to the extinction of the species."
(Reporting by Miguel Lobianco; Writing and additional reporting by Caroline Stauffer; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)