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The Wind Beneath His Wings

The Wind Beneath His Wings

Nov 2015

Words and pics Bas de Vos

There are many unusual ways of travelling and experiencing the world. Some ride elephants, others paddle canoes, and many ride bicycles. In Pokhara, however, you can watch the world below with a bird of prey as your guide.

It’s not that I was surprised to find I’d be sharing a taxi when I climbed in the back seat of a vehicle on the main tourist stretch of Nepal’s third-largest city, Pokhara, that morning. What I hadn’t anticipated was that the other passenger would be a bird of prey. But, indeed, there he sat, snow-white neck feathers puffed up around his bright yellow face, staring at me down a sharp, curved beak with beady black eyes. Meet Egyptian vulture, Kevin. He’d not only share a taxi with me, but he’d also guide me as I flung myself off a cliff on a paraglider shortly thereafter.

So fascinated was I by Kevin that it was a while before I noticed there was a man attached to the raptor’s talons where they sat together in the taxi. Meet Scott Mason, long-time falconer and founder of Nepal’s Parahawking Project. 

Mason came up with the idea of combining paragliding with falconry over several beers with friends after his first experience of paragliding in Pokhara in 2002. By following birds of prey trained to fly with them, paragliders saw how they could benefit from thermals they wouldn’t find if they relied on their own skills. Using the upward currents of warm air discerned by the birds, Mason and his friends saw it would be possible to glide about in the sky much longer than would otherwise be possible.

The peaks of the Himalayan mountain range provide a backdrop to Pokhara.

But the project isn’t only about providing tourists with extended adventures in the sky; it’s also about protecting the Asian vulture. 

Once one of the world’s most common large birds of prey, the Asian vulture is today threatened with extinction because of a veterinary drug administered to cattle, called diclofenac. Used as a painkiller in overworked oxen, the drug is toxic to vultures. When they consume the carcasses of recently treated cattle, birds suffer painful deaths. 

As Kevin and I stared at one another across the seat of the taxi, Mason explained that diclofenac threatens to decimate all nine species of Asian vultures; some populations have been reduced by 99.7%. But the significance of the survival of the birds goes way beyond the desire to conserve a single species. Vultures are fundamental to the environmental equilibrium of Asia. A shortage of vultures results in the scavenging niche being opened up to growing hordes of 'unnatural scavengers'. These include rats and feral dogs, which greatly increase the risk of several diseases such as rabies, rat-bite fever and salmonellosis. One study claims the collapse of the vulture population has indirectly cost India around US$34 billion (more than R425 billion) in increased medical expenses.

Efforts to save vultures from diclofenac began in mid-2000. The drug was banned, and locals were educated about the danger thereof and introduced to a safer alternative drug. In Nepal, six 'vulture restaurants’ were created. These are essentially final resting places for unwanted, sickly and/or old cattle, which are screened for diclofenac. When the animals eventually die, their carcasses are served to hungry wild vultures.

In addition to the paragliding experience, Scott Mason and his team provide a home for several different species of Nepal’s native birds of prey.

Given his fascination with Asian vultures and their guiding skills, Mason decided to build an adventure/tourism business that would also help promote awareness about the birds’ plight. He established The Parahawking Project, which allocates almost 10% of the approximately R2 300 fee charged for each flight to selected vulture conservation projects in Nepal.

We were still talking about the project and how it supports the survival of the raptors when the taxi drew to a halt on top of a tall cliff towering above Pokhara. Mason chatted on as Becky, my flight instructor and human flying companion, strapped me into a tandem paragliding harness with the simple clinking and clanking of clips. 

Then it was time to go: “Walk, walk, walk,” she said, as we lumbered toward the edge of a cliff. And then, “Run!”  

It was only as my feet left terra firma that I stopped thinking about protecting the Asian vulture. A wave of uncertainty swept over me. It had required practically no effort to hop off the mountainside and there I was, flying about 700 metres above Pokhara. But the uncertainty quickly melted away. It was replaced by a sense of being Mary Poppins as she opened her umbrella and drifted along with the wind. In fact, it was supremely relaxing. 

I’d expected to experience an anxious rush of adrenaline while strapped to a glorified sheet with nothing between me and the ground. But no, Becky and I floated along calmly, peacefully and comfortably. The wind whistled through the ropes attached to the canopy, creating soothing tunes. I looked down and could just discern colourfully dressed Nepali women moving about as they stirred huge pots of dahl alongside little cottages on the hillside. The sun gleamed off Pokhara Lake. The tall, jagged peaks of the Himalayan mountain range framed the horizon. Did anywhere on Earth offer a paraglider a more superior view, I wondered?

The author feeds Kevin, the Egyptian vulture, as they fly above Pokhara. The bird is trained to guide paragliders so that they can make the most of the thermals during their flights.

I was woken from my view-induced trance by the sharp blast of a whistle from behind me. This, I recalled from the short preflight briefing, would be Becky calling Kevin to come and eat. It was my job to feed Kevin. I’d been instructed to extend my arm out and offer Kevin a piece of buffalo as he flew by. As I reached out, meat in hand, I was a tad concerned. Would the thin leather glove I wore be adequate protection from the vulture’s huge hooked beak? It was, after all, designed to rip flesh from carcasses and crush bone with a single grasp. 

But, indeed, I didn’t lose a hand in Nepal. Dearest Kevin landed on my arm gracefully, and carefully picked the chunk of buffalo from between my fingers. Once satisfied he had it all, he hopped off his bony perch, briefly dived down for momentum and then unsheathed his mighty wings to soar slowly along, directly in front of us. 

I wasn’t the only one admiring Kevin's flying. Although Becky had a collection of some of the most advanced gadgets with her, none of them is anywhere as accurate as Kevin’s ‘tech’. His skills have developed and been perfected over many millenniums of natural selection and evolution. By following Kevin's carefully tuned flight path, we glided above Pokhara for considerably longer than any of the other paragliders filling up the sky.

The extended flight meant I could continue to experience the thrill and take in the sights at leisure. I gazed down on the beautiful lake below, watched people move about and admired the Himalayan peaks in the distance. Mostly, though, I watched Kevin in his finest and most natural state. I saw him swoop and soar from angles few will have the fortune ever to experience. I imagined I was flying just as he was: vital, unrestrained and alive. Long live the Asian vulture!

TripAdvisor ranked The Parahawking Project the number-one activity in Pokhara.
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Source: The Intrepid Explorer

The Intrepid explorer