Large, ungainly-looking bodies. Ugly brownish-black feathers. Strangely arched necks and wrinkled red heads. Vultures aren’t exactly the world’s most attractive birds and they’re certainly not what we associate with an exotic vacation. In fact, they’re known more for their ruthlessness than anything else.
Our aversion to these birds is precisely what makes Nepal’s new adventure sport, parahawking, so unique.
Parahawking is a completely new concept created by bird expert Scott Mason in 2001. In essence, it is a symbiotic relationship between paragliders and birds of prey. Hawks and vultures are well-suited to find the rising thermal air currents essential to keep both the birds and paragliders afloat. Hawks and vultures are trained to find warm air for the paragliders and are rewarded with chunks of raw meat the birds need to survive.
Since Mason started marketing the award-winning idea, parahawking has cropped up in several other countries, but the Parahawking Project in Nepal is where it originated. Your tandem experience starts with a short instructional session to teach you about vulture conservation and how flying with the birds helps save them from extinction. In fact, 1,000 rupees from every flying session is donated to vulture conservation projects in Nepal. After that, the adventure begins. Hop in a taxi with your instructor and your designated vulture, Bob or Kevin, who have both been saved and trained by Mason. Both birds defy the typical features of their intimidating relatives with yellow beaks, white feathers and grayish-black markings that make them look more like docile seagulls than predators.
Before long, you'll be hooked into your harness and running off the cliff with a staff member strapped to your back. The gentle currents will take you soaring above the idyllic valley which holds the city of Pokhara. Below you, Lake Fewa’s waters are dotted with boats, while the towering, snowcapped peaks of the Himalayas loom in the distance.
Don’t be startled when the peaceful silence is pierced intermittently by whistle blasts coming from your flying partner. Stick out your left gloved hand and wait for the vulture to settle on your arm to pick up his meat treat.
Parahawking is an eye-opening ride for tourists and falconers alike, but the Parahawking Project serves a larger purpose than 30 minutes of an adrenaline rush. Mason’s motivation stems from the recent near-extinction of Asia's vultures. The populations of the White Backed Vulture, the Slender Billed Vulture and the Long Billed Vulture have decreased by 99.9% over the last 15 years due to an inexpensive anti-inflammatory drug given to sick and dying cattle. Poisonous to the birds, vultures that feed on animal carcasses containing remnants of the drug typically die of kidney failure within 24 hours.
The near extinction of these largely misunderstood creatures might not seem too alarming to those who have no personal connection to them, but without vultures, a variety of social and ecological problems would rapidly arise. Their quick disposal of dead flesh eliminates meat that would otherwise spoil and be devoured by other animals. As the number of vultures decreases, the number of rabies-infected dogs and cats would increase, putting humans at risk of an epidemic. It's all part of the circle of life.
Whether your interest in parahawking stems from a love of soaring high above the clouds or concern for an endangered winged species, one thing is certain: In the brief time you share the sky with these vultures, you're sure to walk away with a better understanding of these magnificent creatures and how they interact with their natural environment.