I know, I know, I’m quite possibly not the first person to have introduced you to Parahawking, it has been around for a few years now but just in case you’re a little behind the times like me, here’s the 411.
Parahawking is the art of training birds of prey to fly with Paragliders, it was developed and pioneered in 2001 in Pokhara, Nepal by a Brit named Scott Mason and expert friends. By combining Paragliding with the ancient art of Falconry, they were able to train birds of prey to fly alongside the paraglider. The birds even assist in guiding man to thermal air currents and even more daringly, perform aerobatic manoeuvres.
Eagles, Kites and Vultures are natural soaring birds, together with Paragliders they use thermals to fly long distances whilst conserving energy. Trained birds are no different, they utilize the thermals and guide us mere humans to them, then be rewarded in the air for their efforts.
I came across this incredible diary from someone who was trying it for the first time, I wouldn’t normally just copy and paste a load of text but I found myself so immersed in reading this first hand account that I had to be a bit cheeky and share it with you.
“The only sound is the eerie creak of nylon strings under the tension of my body weight. But then there’s a rising whoosh, the billowing of fabric above us as we’re borne aloft, high up into the heavens, by an invisible hand. Glacier-draped peaks fall away beneath our feet with vertigo-inducing speed and the air temperature drops sharply as we drift over the jagged Himalayan mountain range. We’ve hit a thermal updraught – hot air rising from the ground’s sun-baked crust and pushing us upwards. I’m paragliding, slung beneath a slash of brightly coloured fabric. Falling away between my hiking boots I can see terraced paddy fields, mountainsides choked with rhododendron bushes and small children playing outside shacks, who fade away to become microscopic dots 1,000ft below us.
But we are not alone. Flying ahead of us like an F-16 escort, his huge wings outstretched and taking advantage of the same thermal, is Kevin. Kevin is an Egyptian vulture. And despite his craggy, gloomy face and balding pate, he has a sunny disposition.
Now it’s time for Kevin to collect his reward. Greedily, he eyes the bag of bloody buffalo meat slung around my waist. I tug out a worm-like shred of meat and jam it between the thumb and forefinger of the thick falconer’s glove I’m wearing. The wind whistles around my helmet straps and through the strings of the paraglider canopy.
Kevin makes a long, graceful, arcing turn behind us. I stick my arm out at a right angle and Kevin gives a masterful beat of his wings then lands on my wrist. We are wheeling at 8,000ft and the vulture makes it look as easy as parking a Mini Cooper in a lorry bay. He tugs on the meat in my glove, wolfs it down, gives me a look of gratitude and then falls off my hand in a stooping dive, outstretching his wings when he reaches terminal velocity.
Then my reverie is crudely punctured. Danger is lurking. ‘OK, now we’ve got trouble,’ says pilot Mason. I instinctively grab the two karabiners which attach me to the canopy. ‘A steppe eagle’s coming in to attack.’ He tugs on one of the guiding lines and we veer left in a stomach-churning bank.
Blocking out the sun to my right is a swirling column of birds of prey using a thermal to circle up to the heavens. Huge griffon vultures with 6ft wingspans, steppe eagles and other raptors regard this as their airspace. At this time of year, they are territorial. Kevin is an unwanted marauder but used to cleverly out-flying his would-be attackers
Kevin being fed mid-flight:
Parahawking is a exhilirating experience by the looks of things, but it’s about more than just thrills. It has serious conservation and environmental goals. The birds, such as Kevin, that accompany Mason have been rescued and nursed back to health rather than captured from the wild.
Vultures are generally not regarded with much affection in the West, but the bald-headed scavengers have long held a special place in the adjacent Tibetan religious life. For centuries, locals have carried out ‘sky burials’, in which human corpses are dismembered and then left on a bed of sticks and rocks for the carrion birds to eat – it’s considered a practical way to dispose of a dead body which Buddhists see as a mere empty vessel.
Now, though, the Indian subcontinent is in the middle of a vulture crisis. Millions of the birds – more than 95 per cent of the population in some areas – have been wiped out by the unforeseen side-effect of a veterinary anti-inflammatory drug, diclofenac, which is commonly administered to livestock. The vultures eat the carcasses and the drug causes kidney failure, killing them.
The effect on the environment is potentially catastrophic, says Dr Richard Cuthbert of the RSPB. ‘It means 15 million tons of rotting meat that is not being eaten every year. That in turn leads to larger roaming packs of feral dogs. India is the number one place in the world for rabies now. It would also mean a larger number of rodents and more cases of cholera. Vultures are a crucial part of the ecosystem.’
During my visit, there’s excitement as Dr Cuthbert brings in two white-backed vulture chicks. Mason and his crew of paragliders have spent weeks building an aviary to nurse infant birds such as these before sending them to breeding centres around the country. They may be young – six months old or so – but Mason still has to control them with both hands as the gawky, dodo-like creatures are bedded down.
Scott Mason arrived in the Pokhara Valley in the mountainous nation of Nepal in 2001. A trim, tight-limbed man with a thick east London accent and a wiry enthusiasm, he quit the London rat race for adventure and a round-the-world ticket, leaving behind a successful design business in the capital’s Primrose Hill area. Nepal was his first stop…
Nepal, home to Everest and many more of the world’s tallest peaks, is also nowadays a centre for paragliding. Mason and his girlfriend signed up as a way to while away an afternoon. The next day he was dangling over the mountains flying with fellow Brit Adam Hill, who had found his own nirvana in the mountain valley.
Mason, blown away as he was by the paragliding, was stunned when he realised he was flying right alongside Himalayan birds of prey in their natural environment.
Paragliding developed in the late Seventies in France, and was at first primarily seen as a way for climbers to get down quickly from the tops of mountains. They found they could carry up small canopies weighing only 8lb and would then be able to descend to the bottom in minutes.
He declared that all birds he trained for parahawking would be rescued, not plucked from the wild. Brad, also a black kite, was discovered by Mason imprisoned in a small wire cage by some locals. Eli, a Hodgson’s hawk-eagle, was discovered, after a tip-off, in a cage no bigger than herself.
Slowly, Mason got the birds to fly to his fist. Then, by flying a huge kite in the sky, he got them used to paragliders. Within a few months he launched his maiden voyage with Sapana. Incredibly, she managed to fly to his fist while he paraglided. ‘It was the most amazing sense of achievement,’ says Mason. ‘I’d never been so excited or so proud.’ Some birds showed no aptitude for the programme. A black kite, Goggles, was too wary of the man-made kites. And Eli the Hodgson’s hawk-eagle is still much too nervous to fly with the huge, billowing paragliders. Kevin the vulture, though, is the star of the show. Rescued after he fell out of his nest during a monsoon, he has really taken to parahawking. ‘A couple of times he’s flown into the lines of the paraglider, collapsing half the canopy,’ says Mason. ‘But he’s a natural. My only regret is that he’s not better looking.’ Despite his appearance, Kevin is famous – he even has his own Facebook page with 80 friends.
Frontiers Paragliding, aside from its offices in town, operates from a farmhouse at Maya Devi, at the foot of Sarangkot mountain on the lakeside road out of Pokhara. Amid a sprawl of burnt-cinnamon cottages with thatched roofs, Buddhist prayer flags flutter in front of the aviaries. Hip, wraparound-shades-wearing pilots from France, Italy and New Zealand, among other places, spin high in the sky, pulling aerobatic manoeuvres before landing on a grassy strip in front of the house. Clamouring Nepali kids make 20 rupees (25p) each folding up the canopies after the pilots land.”