Saturday, August 8, 2015

Nepal: Parahawking!

There's one adventure sport that you can do in Pokhara, and nowhere else in the world: parahawking.

Which is to say, paragliding with a trained hawk (actually Egyptian vulture, but "paravulturing" doesn't sound quite as good).  Literally soaring with the birds.  It's precisely as awesome as it sounds.

How did parahawking come to be?  About 15 years ago, a British graphic designer named Scott Mason, languishing in his London office, longed for something more. Through a series of strange events, he landed in Nepal and started a paragliding business. He was also an avid falconer and bird trainer. And so The Parahawking Project was born. The hawks' reward for their service is chunks of raw buffalo, which they eat out of your hand (or glove, since they could rip your hand off) as you gently ride the thermals, floating over the stunning Pokhara Valley, surrounded by the snow-capped Himalayas.  The birds (Bob and Kevin) are rescues who, having imprinted on humans, are unable to be returned to the wild.  While "our" bird seemed plenty big, we also saw several wild griffon vultures cruising around, whose wingspan compared favorably to the size of our paragliders.


Bob.  He was a very chill bird in the car ride up.

The Parahawking Project is part adventure sport, part conservation and education effort.  As scavengers, vultures play a vital role in our ecosystem.  Without them, dead animal corpses rot, contaminating drinking water, and populations of other scavengers like rats and feral dogs explode, spreading diseases such as rabies, anthrax, and plague to humans.  And yet, the vulture populations of Asia have been decimated by the use of a drug called diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory used to alleviate the pain and suffering of dying livestock.  The vultures are unable to process the drug; they die within 24 hours of eating from the carcasses of treated animals.  The impact of the vulture crisis are particularly stark in India, with its huge human population, over 99% decrease in vulture population, and sanctification of cows.  The resulting public health crisis has cost billions of dollars to date.  While the veterinary version of diclofenac has been banned, the human version is still widely and cheaply available.  For a fuller description of the epidemic, see here and here.

The Parahawking Project participates in the Himalayan Raptor Rescue project, which rescues, rehabilitates, and returns many birds to the wild each year.  Mason also helped establish the Ghochowk Vulture Restaurant, a safe vulture feeding site near Pokhara.

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