Soaring over Nepal with threatened vultures

Pokhara, Feb 28: Pokhara is a popular destination for tourists all around the universe and internal tourists alike.

The surroundings of the beautiful mountains give tourists everything that they want for a relaxing moment. Pokhara is like a land of smells where once you arrive here you won’t want to leave.

While wandering around in Pokhara, it would come as a surprise for tourists to know tennis and golf, paragliding, Zip flyer, sky dive, caves, lakes, cycling, scenery of beautiful mountains, fresh air, boating, hiking, greenery, a wide range of trekking and so on.


A new sport is born

On a Himalayan mountainside, more than a dozen paragliding pilots were preparing to take off and ride the thermals over Nepal. But I didn’t come here to see traditional paragliding. I came to witness parahawking – that is, paragliding alongside trained birds of prey. The unlikely sport was founded in 2001 by Scott Mason (pictured), a British paraglider and bird lover who wound up caring for an injured black vulture during a visit to Nepal. In doing so, Mason learned that Asia’s vulture population was plummeting. An anti-inflammatory drug called Diclofenac that was being administered to sick livestock was also killing the vultures feeding on the animals’ carcasses. To raise awareness of the creatures’ plight, Mason founded [The Parahawking Project](http://parahawking.com), which offers people the chance to paraglide with the threatened birds. (Siddharth Gupta)


The proper care and feeding of vultures

Participants who sign up for a parahawking flight can opt to first visit the project’s [Himalayan Raptor Rescue](http://www.parahawking.com/index.php/projects/90-himalayan-raptor-rescue) centre in north Pokhara. Centre workers rehabilitate raptors that have suffered injuries unrelated to Diclofenac poisoning – and they sometimes take in other birds, too. During my visit, the centre was aiding three barn owl chicks. A large part of the centre’s efforts involves education. Workers explained how vultures dispose of carcasses, which helps prevent diseases and also plays a key role in the Buddhist sky burial tradition. The project’s Danny Biddiss (pictured) told visitors that generating sympathy for vultures can be challenging. After all, the birds can strip a carcass clean – human or sheep – in well under an hour. “They’re just not that cuddly,” he said. Yet the vultures do need help. Diclofenac has been banned in a number of countries and its use has declined, but it’s still being administered in places, and vultures are still dying from ingesting it. Over the last 15 years, Asia’s vulture population plummeted from about 40 million birds to just thousands, according to [Saving Asia’s Vultures from Extinction](http://www.save-vultures.org), a conservation group campaigning to help the species’ recover. As awareness grows, vulture numbers are starting to rise again, albeit slowly. (Siddharth Gupta)


How to train your vulture

Visitors to the centre can help train the rehabilitated birds. Pictured here, visitor Neal Hall extended an arm so a black kite named Sapana – the same bird Mason rescued in 2001 – could perch on it. Moments later, Sapana lifted off from Hall’s arm, flew across the rice terrace lawn and returned to the same spot. Some birds, like Sapana, arrive at the Raptor Rescue so young they can’t be released back into the wild. But the birds have an arguably easier life at the centre, where they are well fed, fly daily and have aloe rubbed into their feet regularly to keep them from cracking. (Siddharth Gupta)


A vulture named Kevin

The parahawking flight began with an 8km taxi ride up a rutted, twisting mountain road to the takeoff site. Five of us – including Mason (pictured) and the vulture, Kevin – squeezed into a car with the driver and bird handler, Shiva. As we lurched along in the taxi, one of the passengers asked Mason why he named the vulture Kevin. “If I’d have called him something exotic, nobody would’ve remembered it,” Mason said. “And we want people to connect with the bird and with vulture conservation. I’m not big on anthropomorphizing birds of prey. However, if you want people to connect with the animal, the easiest way is to give it a human name.” (Siddharth Gupta)


Preparing to fly

We soon arrived at Sarangkot, where the hillside launch site was covered with rainbow-coloured paragliding wings. The site is about 1,450m above sea level – almost twice the elevation of Fewa Lake far below. From here, I looked out across layers of mountains extending into blue skies. It was a good day to fly. Shiva (pictured) stood with Kevin perched on his arm while Mason delivered a pre-flight talk to the tandem passengers. Each participant had paid about $200 (20,000 Nepalese rupees) to fly with a bird, with half of the money from each flight going to conservation efforts. Two birds – Kevin and Bob – routinely fly with the parahawkers. They’re busy birds. Last year, the project led about 650 parahawking flights. (Siddharth Gupta)


A vulture’s-eye view

Like all vultures, Kevin has great eyesight. In fact, he can see 10 to 15 times better than humans. “Out there, thermals are working,” Mason said, referring to the updrafts of air that help birds and gliders gain altitude. “Kevin can see thermals rise like the insides of a lava lamp. When he’s in the air, he’s looking around the whole time to see where the next thermal’s going to break. That is the basic principle behind parahawking. We follow the bird, and he’ll guide us to where the thermals are.” (Siddharth Gupta)


Taking flight

I watched as Mason clipped passenger Michelle Zeidman into a tandem harness. At Mason’s signal, he and Zeidman ran off what looked to be a sheer cliff, but wasn’t. It was magical to see them take flight. It was even more magical to witness the moment – seconds later – that Kevin lifted away from Shiva’s arm to join them. The paragliders’ flight times vary depending on thermals, but generally last about 30 to 40 minutes. Flying is good for the birds: thanks to the care they receive and the fitness they maintain, rehabilitated raptors can live to be 20 years old – that’s at least as old as their wild kin, and often older. (Siddharth Gupta)


A vulture in flight

Once in flight, Zeidman fed Kevin – a practice the bird had learned from Mason so that his passengers could see the raptors fly up close. Zeidman wore a pouch with buffalo meat and pulled out one piece at a time, keeping it hidden between her gloved thumb and forefinger. When Mason blew a whistle, she extended her arm. Incredibly, the bird swooped in from behind, landed on her glove, took the meat in its beak and flew away. This exercise was repeated several times during the flight. Every passenger I spoke with said seeing the span of the bird’s wings across the backdrop of the Annapurnas was nothing short of spectacular. (Scott Mason)


Touching down

About half an hour after Zeidman and Mason took off, they touched down at the lakeside landing zone in front of the Himalayan Raptor Rescue centre. Kevin landed just yards away. Later, Zeidman beamed. She said she loved flying with such an awe-inspiring creature beside her. “It was an honour,” she said.