Flying with vultures (much better than eagles)

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“So we’re just gonna run off the edge of this cliff?”, I asked Brad, the Canadian pilot I was strapped to.
“No”, he replied, in his characteristic easy drawl, “you don’t run so much as walk off…”

Parahawking is a form of Paragliding unique to the hills of Pokhara, a beautiful lakeside town nestled in the lower slopes of the Himalayas. Pioneered by two British chaps, Scott Mason and Adam Mills, the key difference from “normal” paragliding, as normal as hanging from the sky by an under-sized parachute can be, is the two trained Egyptian Vultures, called Kevin and Bob, who fly alongside the gliders, swooping in the thermals.

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“Okay, so if you’re about ready just stick out your arm and I’ll call Bob.”
With a piece of meat clutched clumsily in my hawk-proof glove, I gingerly stretched out my arm. A soft beeping from Bob’s radar tracker indicated to Brad where he was; “he’s about ten metres above us now, coming in to land, in 3, 2, 1…” I twist my neck back and forth desperately trying to catch a glimpse of the predator swooping down on my fingers. Then with barely a flutter my arm is suddenly sporting a fully grown vulture, perched surprisingly lightly, plucking the raw meat treat from my hand with practiced ease. He sits for at least 30 seconds, ruffling his feathers in the breeze, presumably getting his breath back, then launches off into the bright blue sky. The whole experience is so fantastic I almost forget to take a picture of it.

For Scott the Parahawking business is a way to fund, and raise awareness of, his conservation work. The plight of all birds of prey in Nepal is a perilous and unreported one. Vultures like Kevin and Bob are declining at the rate of 40% a year. Birds of prey are treated more like a pest than the magnificent lords of the peaks, and they are routinely shot, and accidently poisoned by the drugs given to cattle which vultures and other birds of prey feed off. Part of the problem seems to be a lack education for people on how to manage their environment and work in harmony with the birds and not against them. The Parahawking team are just one organisation working to redress this in-balance.

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Safely back on earth I’m both disappointed to be down and relieved as my legs feel like jelly. I’m able to get an even closer look at the birds we flew with and others at the reserve nearby the lake. I’ve even greater respect for these guys and what they do; there are at least eight birds of prey here, some hand reared chicks, some just rescued and due for future release back into the wild. I can’t imagine a better way for people to interact and therefore empathise with these beautiful creatures then following them in their natural habitat. The feeling of the rushing wind billowing past me, the wings of the vulture brushing my legs as he swooped past, the crystal clear views of the Machhapuchhare or Fish Tail mountain are all memories I will long cherish.

Over the subsequent barbeque (Parahawking defintely builds you up an appetite), I learn that Brad, my pilot, holds the unofficial record for the longest paraglide, made in Pakistan on a journey of over 9 hours. I was in the air for about half an hour and I have to say it’s a most graceful way of falling to earth.

“We find the birds help,” laughs Scott. “If you’re concentrating on the vulture sitting on your arm, people generally forget to be sick!”

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