At a raucous mountain festival high in the Peruvian Andes, a brass band and booming loudspeaker herald the arrival of the most eagerly awaited spectacle.
With the wings of an angel and the horns of a devil, the tonne of life that flaps and bucks and charges into the bullring at first resembles a strange mythological beast.
Snorting and kicking up dust, the hybrid – a raging bull with a condor strapped to its back – strikes awe in a watching crowd as it thunders into the arena, then excitement as it repeatedly attempts to gore a matador. The closer the enraged beast comes to a lethal connection, the louder the cheers of "Olé!".
The spectacle is dramatic, comic and tragic at the same time. While the bull provides the sound and fury, the Andean condor on its back cuts a ridiculous and pathetic sight as it flails wildly back and forth, beating its wings to retain balance on a bucking perch.
The ritual appears designed to show the triumph of indigenous culture over colonial influence. The Andean bird rides the symbol of Spanish virility and is then released, while the bulls are often slaughtered.
But there are accidents. The giant bird – the biggest in the western hemisphere – loses feathers and risks breaking bones or being killed if its mount crashes into the wall or stumbles on its side.
Such customs might barely register overseas if they were rare and the population of Andean vultures was abundant. But the opposite is true, which has created a mounting conservation concern.
"We know there are up to 55 Yawar fiestas a year, some of which use several condors. And some condors are dying.
Undoubtedly it is a threat to a species that is at a very much reduced population level," says Rob Williams, Peru co-ordinator for the Frankfurt Zoological Society, who estimates there may be just 300-500 left in the wild in Peru. "We are on a threshold and if we push the condors much further over this threshold, it will be very difficult for them to recover."
The origins of the fiestas are obscure. Locals say they date back before the Incas. But it’s impossible that bullfighting took place before 1528, when Francisco Pizarro brought the tradition from Spain. Now the events marry those colonial influences with the Andean worship of the condor – considered a messenger between earth and the heavens.
At Ihuayllo, a village of several hundred people living at an altitude of 3,100 metres (10,000ft), the festival begins with a parade of their captive condor, which is dressed up and pulled through the streets by the tips of its wings to the accompaniment of a brass band and the cheers of dancing locals.
It is a noisy, two-day affair fuelled by the fermented maize drink chicha and marked by no little blood. One bull is dispatched in the arena and then has its throat cut and hooves carved off in the middle of the crowd. Soon after, a spectator is gored after stumbling drunkenly into the bullring. Bleeding from the groin, he is driven to the village clinic. Seeing him carted off, a local shrugs and says: "It’s a festival. This is normal."
The gory glory of the Yawar was made famous by the 1941 novel of the same name, subtitled Fiesta de Sangre (Festival of Blood) by José María Arguedas, an author, anthropologist and champion of Quechua culture known as the Hemingway of the Andes.
His book barely mentions the condor, but an image of the bird is almost always on the cover. Partly as a result, communities that had never used a condor in their Yawar festivals now do so with increasing frequency.
"This has changed an awful lot in the past 40 years. Many people because of their beliefs in the importance culturally of the Yawar fiesta – because of Arguedes’ book – have begun to do Yawar festivals," says Williams. "Many of these towns who say it is a very important tradition have actually only been doing it for 20, 30 or 40 years."
Peru’s booming economy is adding to the pressures. With GDP growing at about 6% each year, more and more rural migrants are making it rich in the cities and then returning to their home villages with enough money to sponsor a Yawar fiesta – the ultimate status symbol.
Samuel Rojas, the patron of the fiesta in Ihuayllo, works for a trading company in Lima. He is proud to put up the fee for a condor – without which festivals risk turning into a damp squib.
"I feel so lucky that this year, my year, they managed to trap a condor," he says over a glass of chicha. "If a condor isn’t trapped the people can be so disappointed that sometimes they don’t even go to see the bull fighting."
The bindings for the condor are sewn into the hide of the bull. Agitated by the stitches in its back, the beat of wings above its head and the matador’s provocations in front of its eyes, the enraged bull storms around the ring with the condor lolling from side to side.
There are no definitive figures on the mortality rate of condors at Yawar festivals, but environmentalists estimate 10% to 20% are killed during the fights, while others break or dislocate bones and are likely to struggle to survive after their release.
While other factors – hunting, habitat loss and the modernisation of farming – have also played a role in the decline of the condor, the festivals are seen as an illegal and growing threat.
The condor – one of the world’s biggest birds, with a wingspan of up to three metres – is supposed to be protected by a 2004 presidential decree. But police, judges and village leaders join the festivals, which are regulated at a local level even though they are forbidden by national laws.
The sponsor’s brother, Donato Rojas, says provincial authorities grant permission for Yawar fiestas to use condors, which are usually captured by using a dead horse as bait. "But if the bird dies in the fight, it can lead to fines or imprisonment."
Not long ago, the revered bird was also seen as a pest and a threat. Some herdsmen are still happier if condors are accidentally killed. "I prefer that they die because they harm my livestock. Every year they eat six or seven calves and that hurts me," says Victor Tello, a herdsman dressed, like many festival-goers, in brightly coloured Andean garb.
Drunken revellers try to pluck feathers from the birds while they are tethered close to the bullring before their fight, but the condors’ handlers push them away.
The mayor of Ihuayllo, Bruno Guillen, emphasises that the regulations are designed to protect the bird. "The condor is a symbol of our region, Apurímac, and every year we have a festival with a condor," he says. "We limit its participation in the bullring to three occasions, then it is returned to those in charge of caring for it. Afterwards it is released in a farewell ceremony, with its crown and money, by way of thanks, and it returns to its home."
The ceremony takes place the day after the fights. At Ihuayllo, handlers give the condor a parting drink of chicha, tie a scarf and money around its neck, then the brass band plays as the bird stretches its battered wings, hops on to a rock, and waits for an updraft of air. Even in the wild, the heavy vulture-like creatures cannot support their own weight without the assistance of an air current. With the added trauma of captivity and bullfights, the released bird struggles to reclaim its freedom.
With a crowd watching, the condor twice fails to lift itself in the air, flaps frantically down the slope and crashes clumsily into a thicket before being dragged back again to higher ground. By the third attempt, the watchers are anxious. The band falls silent.
The sponsor waves his arms like wings urging the condor on, knowing a dead bird is not just bad luck but could result in a fine. This time, though, the condor lifts off and soars towards the peaks, prompting a volley of fireworks and the brass band to strike up a celebratory tune.
"El Cóndor pasa!" exclaims a joyous observer, looking up at the bird banking back and forth above the village.
How much longer the condor and the Yawar can continue to grace the Andes looks likely to depend on whether the festival can undergo another evolution to add that most modern of ideas – conservation – to the blend of local traditions and foreign influences that already constitute the Yawar fiesta.
Williams and others want to work with the central and local governments to change attitudes while maintaining traditional culture. "If we can’t conserve the Andean condor here, then we can’t conserve it anywhere," he says.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010