Nepal's endangered vultures take flight for new sport

At a lakeside resort in the mountains of western Nepal, the paragliding season is in full swing, and local champion Kevin is training to get back to full fitness.

His unerring ability to find the thermals that allow paragliders to defy gravity, soaring through the air with vertigo-inducing speed, have made Kevin a minor celebrity in the world of this exhilarating sport.

Kevin, a four-year-old bird who was rescued as a chick after falling out of the nest, is the world's first paragliding vulture.

His owner is Scott Mason, a 38-year-old Londoner with a lifelong passion for bird conservation who travelled to Nepal nine years ago and - almost by accident - invented the new extreme sport of parahawking.

The birds fly with the paraglider, guiding the pilot to the thermals that they have a natural instinct for finding. They are then rewarded with meat, and are trained to land on a passenger's gloved hand when called.

Mason, a former professional falconer, was at the start of a round-the-world trip when he took his first tandem flight on a paraglider in the Nepalese resort town of Pokhara where he now lives.

Impressed by the wealth of birdlife in the skies above Pokhara, he decided to stay on for a while, and was soon running a small rescue centre for birds of prey.

Nepal has long been an international centre for paragliding, thanks to its stunning mountain scenery and clear, dry winters, and it wasn't long before Mason came up with the idea of training birds to help locate the thermals.

He hooked up with a fellow Briton who ran a local paragliding centre, and their early attempts to fly with birds proved successful.

"No one had ever done it before, so we were writing the rule book. I'd trained birds for hunting, but I was very much out of my comfort zone. I was learning as much as the birds were," Mason told AFP.

In 2003 the pair made a short film on parahawking, winning international awards and generating a buzz in the adventure sports community.

"It was becoming more and more obvious that we'd hit on something that was very unique, that could generate a lot of international attention," said Mason.

"At the time there was a real need to put a focus on a problem that was becoming apparent with vultures. I had always wanted to do something powerful within conservation and this was the perfect chance to do it."

South Asia's vultures have been driven to the brink of extinction, and conservationists had just discovered the main cause - the birds were being poisoned by Diclofenac, a drug found in the carrion they eat.

It was widely used as a painkiller for livestock, and as cows are considered sacred and cannot be killed for meat there were large numbers of carcasses to be disposed of by vultures.

The catastrophic decline in vulture numbers across Nepal, India and Pakistan has dramatic ecological and social consequences, not least because the birds once played a vital role in preventing disease by cleaning up carrion.

"These declines are right across South Asia and are completely unprecedented," Chris Bowden, vulture programme manager for Britain's Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, told AFP.

"We went from tens of millions to just a few thousand in 15 years or so.

"The oriental white-backed vulture used to be considered one of the most populous species in the world. To find it on the critically endangered list is quite extraordinary."

Diclofenac has since been banned and a safe alternative, Meloxicam, introduced. But experts believe a human version of the banned drug is being used on animals, and overall bird numbers are still thought to be declining.

Mason's initial attempts at parahawking were with two black kites brought in to the centre he set up, Himalayan Raptor Rescue.

It was not until Kevin, an Egyptian vulture, was brought to the rescue centre in 2006, that he decided to start offering tandem flights commercially, realising they could be used to highlight the plight of the often misunderstood birds.

"Kevin was a vulture, which meant we could focus our conservation efforts and use him as an ambassador," he said.

"Because he was brought in as a chick, he couldn't go back into the wild anyway, he didn't have the necessary survival skills. It also meant he didn't have the same fear of humans the other birds had.

"So we trained him to fly with the paragliders and suddenly parahawking as a concept became viable."

Since then, the business has taken off. In the first year, Mason piloted just seven commercial flights but by 2009, the number had swelled to 370.

Kevin has now been joined by fellow Egyptian vulture Bob, as well as black kites Goggles, Brad and Sapana, the first bird of prey to be taught to fly with paragliders.

Some of the cost of each flight goes to vulture conservation projects in Nepal and some goes to fund Himalayan Raptor Rescue, which aims to rehabilitate sick, injured and orphaned birds and return them to the wild.

Those that cannot be sent back into the wild become permanent residents, are exercised daily and - if they show an aptitude - trained to fly with the paragliders.

"Flying with birds is a bit like swimming with dolphins - it's something people never imagine they could actually do," Mason told AFP.

"My last flight of the season last year was with an 80-year-old man who said it was the best experience of his life."

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